Fail-Safe (1964)

*. Probably the one thing most people know about Fail-Safe is that it was released the same year as Dr. Strangelove. Oddly enough they were based on different books (Fail-Safe and Red Alert), despite the close similarity of their plots. There was a lawsuit but the upshot was that Columbia bought the distribution rights to Fail-Safe so it was in control of the release of both pictures. Dr. Strangelove came out eight months earlier and Fail-Safe didn’t register.
*. Given their similarities it’s impossible not to draw some comparisons. The usual line is that the one is a comedy and the other plays it straight. This is obviously true, but I think they’re also making different points when it comes to the matter of who’s to blame in such a crisis, and the larger state of affairs that gives rise to it.

*. In Dr. Strangelove it’s a human problem: the people in charge are idiots. They even have funny names. In Fail-Safe, however, the same characters are earnest and meant to be taken seriously. The RAND strategist Herman Kahn was, at least partially, the inspiration for both Dr. Strangelove himself and Professor Groeteschele, but the two characters are miles apart.
*. Another way of looking at the same point is that George C. Scott was cast against type to play the blustering buffoon General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, while Walter Matthau, then pretty much unknown but subsequently a comic player, plays his part with an air of cold malice (an air that, in one of the film’s darker turns, gets the girl at the party hot). It’s caricature vs. character, but the point is that its the human element in Dr. Strangelove that leads to disaster. With people like this in positions of power, what do you expect?

*. In Fail-Safe the blame is on the machines that run the system. With a couple of (predictable) breakdowns — a false alarm and Soviet radio jamming — the whole thing goes off the rails. From that point everything goes as planned or programmed. It’s a different sort of nightmare.
*. Judging Fail-Safe on its own, I think we can also stick with the obvious. Director Sidney Lumet’s background in live TV drama was clearly at work, as it comes off very much as a teleplay and is stocked with a lot of the talent he worked with there. It was, in fact, done again in 2000 as a live broadcast on CBS, the first such a production in forty year. George Clooney played the pilot, Richard Dreyfuss was the president and Harvey Keitel was General Black.
*. Of course it was made on the cheap and studio bound. On the commentary track there’s a funny part where Lumet mentions the row of apartments in NYC as being the closest thing he could find to what he thought Omaha, Nebraska might look like. “Closest” being the operative word. The location was on 54th Street in New York, literally across the street from the Fox studio they were filming at.

*. I don’t think the low budget hurts too much. The stock footage of jets that keeps being repeated is clunky, but apparently the government tried to stop them from even getting this much. So it was the best they could do.
*. Sometimes the small-screen aesthetic actually helps. All those giant close-ups play better on TV. And along with the black-and-white photography it has even more of a sense of a period piece.
*. There’s no musical score because Lumet thought it would destroy the sense of reality. He thought a score would be Mickey Mouse, just stressing what’s already there, with the general principle being that music should only perform a function that can’t be performed any other way. Even as a general principle I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Sometimes a score can be distracting or take away from the effect a film is intent on making, but its absence here just makes it seem even more like a television drama. Which is something other, more artificial, than a news report.
*. The idea of trading Moscow for New York City strikes me as not fair, and improbable anyway. Couldn’t the president have started by offering Omaha?
*. I think it still rates as a pretty good movie, though it continues to be overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove, and not without reason. I do think it plays as being more a film of its time though. We’ve learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse, at least if Hollywood blockbusters tell us anything. Things are still in the saddle, perhaps more than ever, but haven’t our idiots gotten even worse?

33 thoughts on “Fail-Safe (1964)

    1. Alex Good

      Things = machines, systems, as opposed to people/the human element. Thought I’d made that distinction clear, but happy to clarify, as always. Helping and teaching others is what I do.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Well, there is a environmental case to be made for not having these things if you don’t need them. And in the case of the smart phones probably a pretty good Luddite argument too. Have you seen The Social Dilemma? Your phone is not your friend.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, I mean we’ve been told for a while now about how manipulative this technology is, designed to be addictive and causing anxiety and depression, but having it put together and presented like that was helpful. I’ve said it before here but I really do feel sorry for young people growing up with this crap in their lives all the time. There’s a reason the tech designers don’t let their own kids use the stuff.

      3. fragglerocking

        Yes and it’s hard not to be paranoid now. Phil and I have been talking,just talking- not googling, about getting a new mattress for the bedroom, and yesterday he got adverts for mattresses popping up on his computer. Coincidence?

      4. Alex Good Post author

        That part of it at least is easy to see. I bought a mattress last year and I’m still getting mattress ads all the time. Scary they’re listening in on conversations though.


        Writing about Beta Test today, has a healthy suspicion about the effects of data mining on individuals. Isn’t self control the solution to such problems? We seem to have come to a grim acceptance of nuclear weapons based on the justification that they’re worth the money and the risk of creating them specifically because they’ll never be used…

      6. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t think self control is enough, especially when talking about young people. Plus work and peer pressure and various other factors make some use of social media almost necessary for a lot of people. Once in, it’s designed to be addictive, and they have enough information now to know how to build a habit in ways that are invisible and pretty much impossible to break. The lockdown just took kids out of classrooms and stuck them in front of screens, making things even worse. It’s scary how programmed and addicted kids have become. I’ve seen parents wrestling their kids to the floor to tear their phones away from them.


        …and yet, your blog must be a powerful, magnetic draw for young and old alike as they scramble to evolve new devices to read your illuminating thoughts on.

        I get that phones and social media are addictive, but having grown up with the endless demonisation of film, drugs, computers, video games and whatever was new that week, I wonder if we give phones too much power over our lives. I get that it’s tough for teens and children. They do what we ask them to do, and we can lock them in a drawer. Being able to look away from screens would seem like a relevant life-skill to teach, right? Given that it seems from most accounts to be getting harder?

      8. Alex Good Post author

        It’s true that there have always been complaints about the effects of media on people, but I think the Internet has changed the game a lot more than anything we’ve seen previously. Teaching kids about the dangers of it is worthwhile. They may even learn to go outside, as I am now, and engage in some useful recycling.

      9. Alex Good Post author

        Seeing as so much of this tech operates in stealth mode, and what we already know about its effects on kids, I think calling it out is worth it. I also don’t think anything is going to change.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Your counterpart in Russia would be Yuri. He is a Siberian peasant with a nuclear missile silo in his back pasture and a bunker in his basement. I’ll get you guys in touch.

      1. Bookstooge

        Thanks Alex, you’re a peach!
        Ahhh, I feel like I know Yuri already. I bet he’s a great guy 😉
        Probably drinks russian energy drinks too. I wonder what they have there? Maybe he and I could work out some sort of black market for smuggled energy drinks….

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t know if you want to do that. In Russia, energy beverage drink you! A can will keep you up for a week. A six-pack will make you go blind. They don’t have an FDA approving such things over there.

      3. Bookstooge

        I just saw this. Yes, Henry is headed right for us and should smack us upside the head sunday through monday. Looks like Monday is going to be a rain day as far as work is concerned.
        I’m hoping to get within a week of being caught up for book reviews and then to start in on all the non-reviews for September. So while I won’t be working at my job, I’ll definitely be working at my hobby.

        Sometimes I wonder how rich I would be if I got paid for all the time I put into the blog 😀

      4. Alex Good Post author

        Ah, yeah, it’s natural to wonder about monetizing all of this. But I think the guys who do make bank as influencers or whatever actually put a lot of work into it. It’s a full-time job, however unimpressive I might find the results. As a book reviewer I realized a long time ago there’s no money in this and just decided to do my own thing.

        Looking forward to blog posts on Henry! Hope you don’t have any trees come down on your house.

      5. Bookstooge

        Well, that’ll sell like hotcakes here in the US on the blackmarket then. make people feel like they’re living on the edge.
        They can talk around the zoom watercooler about how they drank a whole can of Glaznost energy drink over the weekend and brag how it didn’t even kill them. You know, the kind of bs that people who don’t do physical work talk about.

        We can even get a hologram of ol’ Gorby chugging away on it.

      6. Alex Good Post author

        Well just be careful. That stuff fueled *two* revolutions in the twentieth century. I hear it could also be used as lubricant for T-34s and Ladas.

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