1964 was a good year for nuclear holocausts – at least in the movies. At the end of January, the classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released. It was the blackest of comedies, with Peter Sellers doing 3 roles. Surprisingly, he was upstaged by George C. Scott’s manic portrayal of Gen. Turgidson and Sterling Hayden’s controlled maniac, Gen. Jack Ripper. Stanley Kubick actually raced to get his movie released early in the year because of another similarly-themed movie that was coming out closer to summer. It was the last time Kubick ever raced to bring out a movie. Make that the last time he moved beyond a crawl to bring out a movie.
The other film has been overshadowed by Strangelove, but it is also a classic. Fail-Safe was based on a 1962 book by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Burdick was a Stanford- and Oxford-educated academic who was in the political science department in the University of California system when he published his first novel, The Ninth Wave, in 1956. His follow-up book was the bestseller, The Ugly American. Fail-Safe was another success for him. His career, though, was cut short when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1965. Harvey Wheeler was a professor of poly-sci at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he collaborated with Burdick. It was his only foray into fiction.
The movie is an exercise in claustrophobia. Except for a couple of scenes, it plays out on four sets – a bunker room beneath the White House, a conference room in the Pentagon, the Strategic Air Command war room, and the cockpit of a bomber. Fortunately, the film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who had already made a compelling film set in one room, 12 Angry Men.
Unusual for films, there isn’t a “lead” character. Dan O’Herlihy gets first billing as Air Force Brigadier General “Blackie” Black, and the film opens as he’s having a recurring dream of watching a bull fight. Every time the matador stabs the bull, Black feels it. When he’s prostrate with pain, he sees the matador approach the bull for the coup de grace, but he can’t see the face of his killer. He awakens, his face covered in sweat, in the New York City apartment he shares with his wife and children. He quietly gets ready to fly to Washington, DC, for a meeting that morning at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) is holding forth at a Georgetown party that has lasted until dawn. He’s a nuclear war theorist who talks about survivability and acceptable casualties. While his name is German in origin, he is 100% American, a contrast with Peter Sellers’ Strangelove. He leaves to attend the same meeting as Gen. Black at the Pentagon.
In Omaha at SAC headquarters, Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver) is finishing his duty shift when he receives a distressing call. He checks out, leaving a contact address. He just misses a call from his superior, Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton), who needs Cascio for a VIP visit that morning. Bogan has his driver divert to pick up Cascio at the address he left, and is surprised to find it’s in a poor section of Omaha. He walks in on Cascio dealing with his drunken father and mother, humiliating the younger officer.
At a SAC base, a flight of bombers under the command of Col. Grady (Edward Binns) take off for their airborne duty stations. When a UFO (in the literal meaning, not an extraterrestrial) appears on SAC’s monitors over Quebec, the bombers are ordered to their Fail-Safe points. It’s a spot in the sky where they’ll circle until their Fail-Safe command system orders them to attack, or they’re told to stand down. When interceptor fighters can’t immediately locate the UFO, SAC bumps up the DEFCON (defensive configuration) level. The UFO proves to be a troubled commercial airline and SAC transmits the stand down order, but as they send it there’s a peculiar flare on their screens.
All the bombers turn back, except Grady’s flight. His Fail-Safe box has been activated and he and his copilot carefully confirm the attack order. Their target: Moscow.
Where Strangelove had a human cause for sending the bombers to Russia – General Ripper’s precious bodily fluids – with Fail-Safe it’s technology that’s to blame. Different from most movies on the subject, such as the beginning of War Games twenty years later, Grady and his flight follow their training exactly, performing perfectly, but they are launched because of a computer glitch. The movie is faithful to the book with one exception: the flare on the screen at SAC is the Russians testing a new jamming system. That accidentally activates the Fail-Safe box, so the Russians share the fault. (In the book the error was completely American.) Earlier in the film, the senator touring SAC says that human oversight should prevent any mistakes in the system. Accompanying him is an engineer who helped design the system. He’s not so sure. “The machines work so fast and the mistake could be so subtle,” he responds, “the operator may never know it happened.”
Henry Fonda, playing the President, doesn’t come into the picture until the flight is heading for the USSR. Assisting him is Buck (Larry Hagman), a master Russian translator. If you’ve only seen Hagman as the comedy straight man in I Dream of Jeanie or the conniving businessman in Dallas, his performance will be a revelation, as he holds his own with Fonda. Fonda, of course, was the master of quiet nobility in film roles, from Tom Joad on. Here he is clearly the commander-in-chief, marshalling his forces to try to prevent nuclear annihilation, but he does it without posturing, even when contemplating a terrible sacrifice.
Across the board, the cast is outstanding. Fritz Weaver got an “introducing” credit, though he’d been performing on television for 7 years by 1964. He embodies the emotional toll of constantly dealing with doomsday. Weaver went on to perform in television and movies for 40 more years. (His last movie credit was a small role in Pierce Brosnan’s remake of The Thomas Crown Affair in 1999.) Besides Weaver and Hagman, there were two other supporting actors who later became well-known. You’ll find Dana Elcar at the Georgetown party sparing with Walter Matthau; later he would be MacGyver’s boss Peter Thornton. In the straight role of Sgt. Collins, you’ll see a young (and skinnier) Dom Deluise.
Because of the consummate professionalism displayed by Fonda and all the military personnel (with the exception of Col. Cascio), Matthau’s role seems almost over the top. He’s the devil’s advocate, coming up with all manner of scenarios, even suggesting the Russians will surrender when attacked. Gen. Black shoots him down, knowing that the response of the Russians would be the same as that of the US if attacked – full-scale retaliation. The metaphor of the bullfight at the beginning of the movie is apt. From the moment the bull enters the ring, the result is a foregone conclusion – the bull will die. It’s only the details that are in question.
It’s a tribute to Lumet that he could take what is effectively an intellectual discussion and turn it into a white knuckle thriller. One choice that helps is the lack of a musical soundtrack. There’s no cinematic artifice to let you say “this is only a movie.”
One weakness to the film is another example of how technology can render a movie anachronistic, as I mentioned in my blog about Sneakers. Lumet used stock footage of airplanes within the movie, but he didn’t use it well. In both the book and the movie, the US bombers are referred to as Vindicators, a made-up name for some future plane. However, the footage showing the bombers taking off is of the Corvair B-58 Hustler, a supersonic delta-wing bomber that was new to the Air Force when the movie was made. The Hustler was a troubled plane with a high price tag, excessive maintenance costs, and a poor safety record. Almost a fifth of the planes made were lost in crashes. The plane was soon mothballed and eventually scrapped. In contrast, Strangelove used the B-52 Stratofortress, which remained the primary US bomber for almost 50 years. There’s also a sequence where four fighters are sent after Grady’s flight to shoot it down, but they’re unable to catch up to the bombers. When the planes shoot their missiles in an out-of-range Hail Mary attempt, the planes are the swept-wing F-101 Voodoo. They then change to the stubby-wing F-104 Starfighter for a moment before becoming the delta-wing F-102 Delta Dagger when they fall into the Arctic Ocean, their fuel expended. To anyone who knows warplanes, that’s as bad a gaff as the mysteriously reset table in The Goodbye Girl.
That is, though, my only quibble. Fail-Safe is an incredibly effective thriller. Robert Osborn on Turner Classic Movies even termed it a horror picture. Its central premise is still topical, and it deserves to be seen.