Showing posts with label Henry Fonda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Henry Fonda. Show all posts

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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Hank & Jim by Scott Eyman

Hank & Jim
The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart
by Scott Eyman
Hardcover ISBN: 9781501102172
Simon & Schuster
October 20017

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Their friendship was an oxymoron. They were polar opposites and they were two peas in a pod. Actors Henry Fonda and James Stewart couldn't have been more different from each other or more the same. Fonda was a liberal and Stewart a conservative. They didn't agree on politics, morality or relationships. But their mutual respect for each other meant they agreed to disagree. They shared a deep love for acting even if they both approached their careers very differently. When fame reared it's ugly head, they both understood that the key to keeping their sanity was to not bring work home with them. When Hank and Jim were together the conversation was never about work and sometimes it was about nothing at all. They both appreciated silence and could just be together without saying much. They met before they became major stars and stayed friends through their successes and trials and tribulations. Other people came and went but their friendship lasted until the bitter end.

Historian Scott Eyman's Hank & Jim explores one of the most enduring and fascinating Hollywood friendships in film history. The narrative follows the parallel lives of two movie legends from their salad days during the Great Depression, to their transition to Hollywood and the many movies and theatre productions to come. It also explores Fonda's five marriages and his relationship with his son Peter and daughter Jane as well as Stewart's marriage to Gloria and raising their two sets of twins. In between it all was Margaret Sullavan, the vibrant yet troubled actress whom enchanted Fonda (she became his first wife) and Stewart (he longed for her but she was always out of reach). The book also details their WWII years when Fonda served in the Navy and Stewart in the Army Air Corps.

This book could have easily been called Hank & Jim & Friends because there is a lot of information about Fonda and Stewart's friendships with other key figures including Burgess Meredith, Gary Cooper, James Garner, John Swope, Joshua Logan, and especially Leland Hayward. But overall this book paints a portrait of two men who had two distinctly different careers as actors, even when they worked as University Players or in the several films they worked on together. Eyman discusses their many films and, especially is the case with Fonda, their many Broadway and off-Broadway productions. None of their films are discussed too in-depth so that they could all be highlighted as they occur in the timeline of Fonda and Stewart's respective careers.

The biggest takeaway from reading Hank & Jim was how Fonda and Stewart understood and respected each other. This was the foundation of their friendship. It's the reason why it lasted so long and why it was so special.

This book is incredibly well-organized. It flips back and forth between Fonda and Stewart following their lives and careers in tandem. Even with all the switching, the transitions were so smooth that I never felt lost. It's clear that Eyman did a thorough job at researching this book. He interviewed Shirlee Fonda, Brooke Hayward, Kelly Stewart and others who knew both principal figures well including Robert Wagner, Norman Lloyd and more. Peter and Jane Fonda are heavily quoted. Eyman credits the late Robert Osborne in being instrumental in the genesis of the book.

While I usually love Eyman's books, I never quite found Hank & Jim all that engrossing. I struggled to finish this one in a way that I haven't with other dual biographies. I have heard from other classic film enthusiasts who read and loved this book. I've also heard from at least one other person who shared my same reaction. The preface and epilogue are brilliantly written and I would definitely go back to the book to re-read those. I just wasn't as captivated by the meat of the book. With that said, if you have a keen interest in both figures, I would highly recommend giving this book a try.

Hank & Jim by Scott Eyman is a well-researched and thorough look at an enduring friendship of two major Hollywood legends.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy of Hank & Jim to review!

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