FAIL-SAFE Remains a Success

Criterion’s release of the Lumet classic is still a compelling piece of cinema.

As far as masters of cinema are concerned, there are few luminaries who have ever been able to reach Sidney Lumet’s level. With each passing decade, the five-time Oscar-nominated director managed to challenge and explore his filmmaking sensibilities while churning out films which furthered the possibilities the medium could reach. What else could one expect from a director whose very own feature debut, 12 Angry Men, resulted in one of the 1950s most indelible films? Not many others could tackle projects as vastly diverse in the already bold movie landscape of the 1970s as the sharp satire of Network and the dark glamour of Murder on the Orient Express. By the time Lumet reached the 80s, his efforts definitely became more character-driven than before. But the brokenness of Paul Newman’s struggling, redemptive lawyer in The Verdict and Jane Fonda’s washed-up B-movie actress in The Morning After were just as different as they were captivating. The one commonality each project shared was the way Lumet totally surrendered himself to the world of whatever movie he was bringing to life, a trait which became synonymous with the director in a way it never did with any other filmmaker. Yet perhaps no other world he took on absorbed him as an artist in quite the same way as 1964’s Cold War tale Fail-Safe.

Filmed in stark black and white with no score whatsoever, Fail-Safe sees Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau star as the President of the United States and a professor of nuclear science, respectively who try to stop an attack on Russia signaled by a computer malfunction. Working with the different agencies, the two men and their respective colleagues try and do everything possible to avert an all out nuclear war.

The stark horror of Fail-Safe isn’t lost on anyone, regardless of what era the film is viewed in. The sheer concept of nuclear war being so close was a common nightmare shared by many and remains utterly terrifying in a post-Cold War era. Literature and film wasted no time in exploring the idea of nuclear war and it’s chilling storytelling effects. While Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove depended heavily on the aid of black comedy and Seven Days in May leaned on melodrama to tell its effects of the Cold War, others such as The Manchurian Candidate opted for pure psychological horror. Fail-Safe is perhaps the most visceral out of any Cold War title thanks to the absolute earnestness within the script. The way it looks at its scientists, generals and politicians not just as imposing figures, but vulnerable flesh and blood human beings, each of whom feels the gravity of the power in their hands growing, adds to the movie’s heightened tension. It’s that tension which drives Lumet’s film and the filmmaker knows when to inject a moment of fear or panic to make the effect feel even greater, making us sense the inevitable inching closer.

Stylistically, Fail-Safe is one of Lumet’s most interesting films. As I mentioned before, (and as he would later do in Network), there is no sweeping score here. Only the sounds of doors, telephones, planes and people talking can be heard throughout the entirety of the film. The feeling this gives off is a minimalist one, but adds a dark realism which strips away the safety of the Hollywood sheen, reminding audiences of the very realistic events being played out in front of them. Had Fail-Safe been directed by anyone other than Lumet, the lack of music would have made the movie come off as distant. Yet Lumet plays with the camera in the most striking and mesmerizing of ways. The director’s preference for tight coverage (the close-up of the back of Fonda’s head intercut with shots of Larry Hagman’s worried expression is unforgettable) and obscure angles (the main control room begins to look more and more otherworldly with every subsequent scene thanks to slanted and disjointed angles) help make this one of the director’s most visually expressive entries. The world Lumet creates within the high-powered government and military walls is so encompassing, it makes it easy to forget about the very real one outside which is on the brink of being changed forever.

Thanks to his famous penchant for rehearsal, Lumet never directed a bad performance in any of his films. In fact, he oftentimes elevated and showcased different sides of the actors and actresses he chose to cast in his projects. This can be seen in the performances of Fail-Safe’s two legendary leads. Fonda is at his tense best, while Matthau projects a seriousness that’s breathtaking. Even those in lesser roles including Hagman and Fritz Weaver (in his film debut) shine thanks to the generous freedom and space Lumet gives them. Apart from the work the actors do, it’s hard not to be riveted and unnerved by the sheer concept of Fail-Safe. In a way, the film is an expansion on the infamous 1964 “Daisy” campaign ad run by LBJ which showed a little girl picking flowers which was interrupted by the threat of nuclear war. When the end does come in Fail-Safe, Lumet doesn’t grandize it, but nonetheless marks the climactic end with a distorted, grimy freeze frame, signifying the idea everything, all of life, could be over in an instant.

Fail-Safe is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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