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.

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