Monday, June 18, 2018

Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe (1964) poster


The year was 1963 and Columbia Pictures was in a pickle. They had two Cold War movies currently in production that basically told the same story but in very different ways. One was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farce based on the otherwise serious novel Red Alert (aka Two Hours to Doom) by Peter George. The other was Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, based on Eugene Burdick and Henry Wheeler's best-selling novel of the same name. One was a satire and one a serious thriller but both delivered a frightening warning about nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove was well into production Kubrick got word of Lumet's project and he threatened to sue Columbia. To appease Kubrick, Columbia agreed to release Dr. Strangelove in January of 1964 and not to release Fail-Safe until September of the same year. That would give both movies some breathing room. Little did Columbia know that Dr. Strangelove would be such an acclaimed hit that it would essentially set up Fail-Safe for failure.



Ben Mankiewicz presenting Fail-Safe (1964), 2018 TCMFF opening night

At the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, opening night included a world premiere restoration of Fail-Safe by Sony Pictures, which now owns Columbia. Fail-Safe screenwriter Walter Bernstein was to be on hand to discuss the film with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. A fan of the film, Mankiewicz considers Bernstein a personal hero and requested that he introduce the film at TCMFF. Unfortunately, the day before the festival 98-year-old Bernstein suffered a serious fall that landed him in the emergency room. Mankiewicz stepped in and offered a 15 minute introduction with a brief audience Q&A. 

Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter of several films including The Magnificent Seven, Something's Gotta Give (Marilyn Monroe's final unfinished film), Semi-Tough, The Front, The Money Trap and of course Fail-Safe. Over the years Bernstein has always been very candid about his blacklist experience. According to Mankiewicz, Bernstein was a member of the Communist party from 1946 to 1956, wrote for a variety of radical groups and his name appeared in red channels. Because of his involvement the House of Un-American Activities Committee wanted to subpoena him. Bernstein had no interest in naming names and wanted to avoid jail time so he went underground instead of appearing in front of the committee. Luckily for him, the HUAC was starting to lose its power and was able to avoid jail time. He kept busy writing scripts under pseudonyms. Although Dalton Trumbo was famous for breaking the blacklist in 1960 with credited roles in Exodus and Spartacus, Bernstein quietly broke the blacklist in 1959 with Sidney Lumet's That Kind of Woman (1959). Lumet was interested in working with Bernstein but wanted to ask him some questions. They regarded Bernstein's involvement with Communist and radical groups and publications. Bernstein was unabashedly open in his responses. Mankiewicz joked that his responses were "yeah! up! That's me. I did that. Yes that's right." Mankiewicz went on to say that Bernstein shed his radical ties but went on to become "a very proud progressive. [Bernstein] says there are people who run the world and people who make the world run. Whose side are you on? Regardless of your politics you have to like Walter Bernstein."


Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe
Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964)


"I tell you the truth, these machines scare the hell out of me."


Lumet and Bernstein would join forces again on Fail-Safe, a magnificent nail-biter that explores how a mechanical failure could lead to nuclear war. The term fail-safe refers to how devices are set-up in order to cause the least amount of damage when they fail and the film explores what could happen when we rely to much on machines. The movie stars Henry Fonda as the President. As the commander-in-chief, he is given the grave task of making the hard decisions of how his military will proceed when a bomber pilot Col. Grady (Edward Binns) is given a false signal to drop two nuclear missiles on Moscow. Assisting the president is Gen. Black (Dan O'Herlihy) whose been suffering from nightmares about impending nuclear war, the headstrong Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) who thinks accidental war with Russia is a good thing, the head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton), Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver) who loses his cool at a crucial moment, and Buck (Larry Hagman), a translator who is key to the president's communications with Russia. The film starts off slow and builds up so much momentum in the second half that I found myself literally at the edge of my seat wanting to scream profanities at the screen. This is a dialogue driven drama and Walter Bernstein does a fantastic job building the tension that propels the story forward. Due to the nature of the story, the characters suffer a terrible internal conflict that we see unravel as the plot progresses. To prevent a nuclear war that will destroy all of earth's inhabitants, Russia becomes an ally when they were once an enemy. The men battle with the new grey area that separates patriotism and treason. Dom DeLuise who plays Sergeant Collins, has a particular poignant scene when he must give up a military secret to Russia when other members of SAC could not.

The serious war room.

Edward Binns in Fail-Safe
Edward Binns in Fail-Safe


"Anyone would crack under the stain."


The film received much opposition from the Johnson administration who didn't want to see it come to fruition. According to Sidney Lumet, his crew was denied access to information and archival footage. The scene in which we see the bomber plane and it's five defense planes take off was bootleg footage of one plane taking off that was repeated to make it seem like it was six different planes. Before I saw the movie at TCMFF, I spoke to film researcher Lillian Michelson. She told me she worked on the movie studying and reporting back with information about a variety of military tactics and technologies. I'm sure Michelson filled in the blanks for many details that the government wasn't willing to provide the filmmakers.

George Clooney remade Fail-Safe in 2000 as a TV movie broadcast live on CBS. Walter Bernstein wrote the new adaptation. According to Mankiewicz, Columbia owned the rights to the original novel but not to Bernstein's 1964 screenplay. So anything added to the 1964 movie that was not in the book could not be used in the TV movie. For example, instead of the wife talking to her pilot husband the TV remake had a son talking to his pilot dad. On the afternoon of the live broadcast, TCM was going to show the original movie. Clooney begged TCM to reconsider and said he would do anything for them in exchange. TCM pulled the movie but Clooney has still to make good on his end of the deal.

Fail-Safe (1964) is one of the best war movies I have ever seen and it quickly became one of my favorite movies. It's so brilliantly acted, the plot so well-paced and it induced so much anxiety that I couldn't help but be completely and utterly engrossed. While I enjoyed Dr. Strangelove and consider it one of the greatest satires of all time, as far as Cold War stories go I think Fail-Safe is a far superior film. It's a shame Fail-Safe wasn't taken seriously when it came out because it was stuck in the shadow of the film that came before it. I highly recommend watching Fail-Safe knowing as little as possible about the plot (I gave very little away in my description) and embracing the fear that this film will instill in you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

2018 Summer Reading Challenge




I'm proud to announce this year's summer reading challenge! It's time to dust off those classic film books and get reading. I challenge you to read and review 6 classic film books this summer. See below for details on how to sign-up and participate. One small addition this year, the challenge has an official hashtag! Make sure you use that when posting about it on social.

All of the details below including the review submission form can be found on the official Summer Reading page.

Happy reading!


2018 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge


  • Sign up for the challenge (see form below)
  • Read a classic film book
  • Write a review and post it on your Blog, Instagram or Goodreads profile
  • Use hashtag #classicfilmreading
  • Submit your review link (see form on the Summer Reading page)
  • Repeat until you have read and reviewed 6 books!
  • Review 6 and be automatically entered to win a prize.




Challenge runs from June 7th until September 15th, 2018. Sign-up before July 15th.

Because of the late start this year, any books read within the entire month of June can count towards the challenge.

See full details below.

What counts as a classic film book?
  • Biographical book about some from the classic film era. Biography, autobiography, memoir or a collection of interviews or letters all count. Can be about an actor, actress, director or other cast or crew member.
  • Book about films – specific film(s), genre, film-making process, etc.
  • A photography or art book related to classic films, fashion, style or a particular person.
  • Film criticism or analysis
  • 20th century novel that was adapted into a classic film
  • Novel fictionalizing a classic film or an actor/actress from old Hollywood.

How many books should you read?

You can read one book in each category, 6 books in one category or mix it up. Read a book you’ve never read before or re-read an old favorite. The book can be brand new or long out-of-print. I'm flexible about what constitutes "classic film" and I'll accept anything up until the 1970s. Beyond that, please check with me before submitting your review.

If you complete all 6 reviews by September 15th you’ll be eligible to win one single disc DVD-MOD from Warner Archive, film of your choosing. # of winners to be determined.

Open internationally!



If you have a blog, feel free to grab a button!


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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Highway Dragnet (1954)



"First guy who moves gets a belly full of lead."

Jim Henry (Richard Conte) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jim meets with a fellow Marine in Las Vegas to discuss fixing up his seaside home that's been flooded by rising waters. While in Sin City he meets temperamental model Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes). The night after their confrontation at a bar, she winds up dead in her hotel room, the result of strangulation with a strap. The police, led by Det. Lt. Eagle (Reed Hadley) are led to Jim who has an alibi with his Marine friend whom he plans to meet back in California. He's the only one who can prove Jim's innocence. After escaping the police, Jim finds two women stranded on the desert highway: photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and model Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). After helping these two with their broken down car, he rides off with them hoping to get back home to find his friend. The two women quickly realize this mysterious hitchhiker is on the run from the cops. Can Jim make it back home in time to prove that he's not the strap killer? Or will the cops catch up with him before he gets the chance?

Released by Allied Artists, Highway Dragnet (1954) is a short B-movie thriller directed by Nathan Juran. It clocks in at 1 hour and 10 minutes and while that may seem rather short the story is fairly simple and straightforward and the time frame worked perfectly for the plot. It's low budget, a bit cheesy but has a great cast in the form of Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix and supporting players like Reed Hadley and Mary Beth Hughes. Fans of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) will recognize Frank Jenks who plays a Marine suspected of being the runaway convict.

This film came out at a time of transition for the three main stars. This was a few years after Joan Bennett's infamous career halting scandal. A love triangle resulted in her husband, producer Walter Wanger, shooting her agent, Jennings Lang, in the groin. Lang survived and Wanger was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. Highway Dragnet was her return to movies. Richard Conte had recently lost his contract with Fox and the 1950s brought him many B-movie roles. In the following decade his career would take a turn with some small parts in better movies including some of my favorites like Ocean's 11 (1960) and The Godfather (1972). The year Highway Dragnet was released was the same year actress Wanda Hendrix briefly retired from films. After her disastrous marriage to actor Audie Murphy, she decided to step back from acting when she married James Langford Stack Jr., brother of actor Robert Stack. When that marriage fell apart she returned to acting with a handful of parts on TV and a few more movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Highway Dragnet is famed producer/director/writer Roger Corman's first credited screen role. He wrote a screenplay entitled House by the Sea, a reference to the protagonist's beloved home, and sold it to Allied Artists. Corman didn't realize the transformation his screenplay would undertake at the hands of the filmmakers. Several writers worked on the script including Herb Meadow, Jerome Odlum, Tom Hubbard and Fred Eggers. The end result was far different from Corman's original vision. According to biographer Pawel Aleksandrowicz,

"Corman was so appalled at the difference between the original version and the final product that he decided to produce his films by himself in order to have full control over them." 

He used the funds he earned from Highway Dragnet to produce The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). Corman mastered the art of making low-budget movies that entertained audiences and turned a profit. And the rest is history. I would love to read Corman's original screenplay to compare with the final movie. I have some ideas about what was left out or changed.

The relationship between the two female leads played by Joan Bennett (Mrs. Cummings) and Wanda Hendrix (Susan) suggest something more going on in the background. Perhaps this was intended in Corman's screenplay but played down in the final script? Their relationship hints at a romance between the two and they switch gender roles throughout the film. Susan is dressed in a crop top and pants and covered in grease from trying to fix their car, something Jim points out when he meets Susan for the first time. In contrast, Mrs. Cummings is full on glam in a white dress, heels and sunglasses. We learn that Mrs. Cummings is a photographer and Susan is her model. The two have a close relationship that extends beyond their business partnership. When they arrive at the hotel for their poolside photo shoot, the dynamic shifts with Mrs. Cummings taking the lead and Susan being the object of her attention for both good and bad. When Susan develops an affection for Jim, this threatens their relationship. Perhaps romantically but the story focuses more on the dark secret Mrs. Cummings is hiding from everyone except for Susan. The hotel scenes reminded me greatly of the film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara which also involves women, traveling down a highway on a road trip and a fellow traveler, male, threatens their happiness.




Highway Dragnet (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. They've been releasing DVDs and Blu-Rays of a variety of independently produced/released films from mid-century Hollywood. I encourage you to check out their growing catalog of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, many of which I've reviewed on this blog.


Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Highway Dragnet (1954) on Blu-Ray to review!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

6 Questions with Alicia Malone on TCM's Mad About Musicals



This month TCM in conjunction with Ball State University is hosting a free online course and month long programming called Mad About Musicals. The course started on June 3rd but they've extended the deadline for signing up to 6/17!

If you're participating in the course or just tuning in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to watch musicals, check out my interview with TCM host Alicia Malone. 



Raquel Stecher: What can those who signed up for the TCM’s Mad About Musicals course expect?

Alicia Malone: I’m jealous of everyone who is participating, because you get lessons by the knowledgeable and hilarious Dr. Vanessa Theme Ament, who you’ll also get to see on TCM doing some special intros alongside Ben Mankiewicz. You also get to see special interviews, movie clips and play games to test your expertise. And all of it works alongside the programming on TCM.


Raquel S.: What can viewers expect from TCM’s Mad About Musicals screenings this June and which films will you be introducing?

Alicia M: Throughout June viewers will be able to watch more than 90 musicals, selected from the 1920s through to the 1970s, showing every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ll be introducing the films on Tuesday evenings, and I feel very lucky that I get to introduce some of my personal favorites, such as Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951).


Raquel S.: How did musicals evolve over the 20th century?

Alicia M: Doing preparation for this month has been so much fun, because watching a bulk of musicals in a short amount of time allowed me to see how they evolved. At the very beginning, musicals were used to showcase how sound could be used in movies. They were often Broadway adaptations, with sequences filmed on a stage. But then as they grew in popularity, studios (especially MGM) saw them as important vehicles for their biggest stars, and as technicolor began to be introduced, musicals got bigger, splashier and brighter than ever. But by the end of the 1950s these productions were getting too expensive, and audiences weren’t as interested in these pieces of escapism. Though every decade there comes a few new musicals, such as La La Land (2016), which looked to the past and became a huge hit.


Raquel S.: Why is it important to learn about film history and in this case the history of musicals?

Alicia M: I actually think musicals are a fun way to start learning about film history, because the two go hand in hand. Learning about film history helps you to enjoy watching movies. You start to be aware of what was happening at the time it was made, why the directors chose certain shots, songs or stars. And everything is influenced by what came before it, so I love being able to spot how films have changed but also stayed the same.


Raquel S.: Some folks love musicals and some don’t. What would you say to convince film lovers who are hesitant about musicals that this is a genre to enjoy?

Alicia M: I would tell them to look at the artistry of the filmmaking. The skill of the dancers, the costuming, the catchy songs, how sometimes a whole script was written around a group of completely different songs. Sometimes people are quick to write off musicals as being simple entertainment but there was a lot of care put into the making of these movies.


Raquel S.: What is your favorite musical and why?

Alicia M: My favorite is Singin’ In The Rain (1952). That might be a cliched answer, but I don’t care... it’s a film that always brings me joy. It’s also the film that I saw which made me love musicals in the first place. I watched it when I was really young, dreamed about doing that wall flip that Donald O’Connor does in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and learned all the songs. I still put it on whenever I need a little pick-me-up. “Dignity, always dignity...” This is the movie I recommend to those who are skeptical of watching classic film in general, it has an energy that is infectious.


Many thanks to Alicia Malone for taking the time to chat with me about TCM's Mad About Musicals!

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