Challenge Week 18: Fail-Safe

If Ken’s other film Mortal Kombat had me a bit apprehensive going into it, I was pretty excited about this one – a political thriller based on the same book as Dr. Strangelove (and released the same year), but with a totally straight rather than satirical take on it. It’s been years since I’ve seen Strangelove, and that’s probably good, as it gave this one a chance to stand on its own with little comparison.

At the height of the Cold War, a bomber squadron in Alaska mistakenly gets the message to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow, and thanks to all the fail-safe systems built into their protocols, there’s basically nothing the government, even the president, can do to stop them. It’s a nightmare of automated military orders gone wrong, of paranoia-driven conspiracy theories run amok, and the dangers of an overly efficient war machine.


A number of perspectives play in – the academic consultant (Walter Matthau) who has a “get them before they get us” mentality, valuing winning over whatever casualties might ensue; the general who thinks Russia has planned all of this to fool them so Russia has cause to attack in “retaliation”; the general who’s willing to give up everything to keep WWIII from coming to pass; and the President (Henry Fonda), who pleads with the Russian president that it’s only a horrible mistake. Everyone has a lot of stakes in this – frankly it’d be interesting to see the commotion on the Russian side of this instead of just hearing them on the phone, but that’s probably another movie.

The film is made even more effective through its stark and cold shooting style – I don’t have a unified theory on this yet, but I’m starting to notice a trend among hyper-realist B&W dramas of the 1960s embracing a flat, high-contrast/low-grey lighting style – this, The Trial, Seconds, and a few other seem to fall into this category for me. This is nowhere near as strikingly shot as The Trial, but they have a similar abstracted quality in the lighting that makes them seem simultaneously realistic and heightened. In addition, there’s no score at all in this film, something I didn’t notice until near the end when all of a sudden it became very apparent in a scene you’d expect to have some tense and swelling music. The lack of any music actually makes it MORE intense, though.


The final shots are very effective, as the camera captures the last few brief moments in a city before the bomb falls – children laughing and playing, women chatting with each other, etc. – soon white light freezes them, and those freeze frames are simply devastating.

I’ve mentioned that it’s been a long time for me with Dr. Strangelove, so I can’t do a direct comparison very well. I mentioned to Jonathan (who’s a huge fan of Strangelove that I couldn’t be sure this wouldn’t beat it, even if I rewatched Strangelove, simply because the straight-forward tone worked wonderfully for me, whereas Strangelove‘s several tones – satire, broad comedy, black comedy, etc. – didn’t always gel perfectly for me. When I just checked my 1964 chart, I noted that the two films landed back to back for 1964, with Fail-Safe hitting just 20 spots higher on my chart than Strangelove, both of them at 82% on my chart. I didn’t know where Strangelove was ranked, so it seems pretty bizarre and kind of cool that they ended up so close together.


Stats and stuff…

1964, USA
directed by Sidney Lumet, screenplay by Walter Bernstein
starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Larry Hagman

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Fail-Safe entered my chart:

Fail-Safe beats Three Times
Fail-Safe beats Los tallos amargos
Fail-Safe loses to Team America: World Police
Fail-Safe beats Pitch Black
Fail-Safe beats Into the Woods
Fail-Safe loses to Koyaanisqatsi
Fail-Safe loses to Johnny Guitar
Fail-Safe loses to The Martian
Fail-Safe loses to 42 Up
Fail-Safe loses to The Thing (1982)
Fail-Safe loses to Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Fail-Safe loses to Broken Blossoms

Final #568 out of 3637 films on my chart (84%)

It is now my #3 Sidney Lumet film, my #7 Henry Fonda film, my #2 Walter Matthau film, my #3 Disaster Film, my #7 Political Thriller, and my #7 film of 1964.

Fail-Safe was recommended by Ken Gagne, a friend from Twitter. Averaging together this #568 ranking with my #1810 ranking of his other film, Mortal Kombat, gives Ken an average ranking of 1189.

A few quotes…

[Note: I didn’t write down the attributions of these like I should’ve; I’m trying to remember who said what, I may be incorrect – please correct me if I am.]

Brigadier General Black: In a nuclear war, everyone loses. War isn’t what it used to be.

General Brogan: No one can interfere with the fail-safe box. No one.

Brigadier General Black: There’s no such thing as a limited war. Once those hydrogen bombs begin to drop, there’s no limit to anything.

General Brogan: The more complex a machine or system gets, the more likely accidents will happen.
Prof. Groeteschele: These machine are being supervised by humans. When the machine fails, a human steps in to fix the mistake.

US Ambassador: [over the phone] I can hear the sound of explosions from the north east. The sky is very bright. All lit up.

Ending title: The producers of this film wish to stress that it is the stated position of the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force that a rigidly enforced system of safeguards and controls insure that occurrences such as those depicted in this story cannot happen.

A few more screenshots…







Challenge Week 18: Mortal Kombat


Challenge Week 19: Being There


  1. I don’t think this movie and Dr. Strangelove are based on the same book; one is based on “Red Alert” by Peter George, the other on “Fail-Safe” by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

    • Huh, you are correct. The plots are so identical I assumed they were based on the same thing. Looks like it was contentious back in the day, too, as George sued Burdick & Wheeler for plagiarism (and Kubrick also sued the producers of Fail-Safe when the films were in production, succeeding in having Dr. Strangelove released several months earlier).

      • I agree, they’re uncannily similar—even scene-for-scene at times. It doesn’t help that they both were based on books, and the films were released in the same year (1964) and distributed by the same studio (Columbia Pictures). Sounds like the lawsuit was over the books, though, not the movies—perhaps things got settled in time for the movies to be made without issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén