January is Classic 60s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Rick Dyke.
Movie Title: Fail-Safe
Year: Released in U.S. – October 7, 1964
Writers: Walter Bernstein (screenplay) , from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Peter George (uncredited)
Lead Actors: Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Dan O’Herlihy
Director: Sydney Lumet
Plot Summary: American bombers are sent by mistake to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow due to a technical problem. Can the bombers be stopped in time? Will a nuclear disaster be avoided?
Why I Think This Is A Classic 60s Movie: I remember as a young child, while travelling with my parents, watching an atomic bomb explosion on television in a darkened motel room and asking myself, “ Is this happening right now?” For those of us that lived through parts of the Cold War, we can remember that fear was palpable. While the Cold War was a major theme of the 50’s, it peaked in the early 60’s with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred in October 1962. For those that lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, they can remember the widespread fear that swept this nation, and the world, like a plague. Everyone was afraid that nuclear war was imminent.
Fail-Safe is a classic 60’s movie because it captures that fear, the tangible fear of the Cold War. What makes matters worse is that the situation is totally out of control. There is nothing that anyone can do to stop this tragic event. The story, the directing, the black & white cinematography, the acting, and the editing all contribute to the feeling of fear and the hopelessness of the situation. Even the end of the film, the resolution of the problem, does not leave a sense of relief. It leaves you with a claustrophobic sense of “What have we done?” Many 60’s and early 70’s films do not have happy endings. The situation in our world was too complicated, there were no easy answers and certainly no “Hollywood” happy endings.
The 60’s was about the destruction of the “establishment” and a statement that what we had built in the 50’s and earlier was not working. The real-world events of the early 60’s, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations all show the destruction of the establishment. The demise of the old studio system in Hollywood in the late 60’s is another example. Fail-Safe fits perfectly into this era.
My Favorite Moment In The Movie: I’ll mention two moments:
The US bombers are just reaching Soviet air space and the President has ordered everyone to help the Soviets shoot them down so they won’t drop their nuclear bombs on Moscow. The President instructs the control center to do whatever it takes to help the Soviets shoot down the jets. The Soviets ask if the US missiles on the jets are infrared and radar equipped, a technical secret. The US General instructs someone to answer the question. He does not respond. The Colonel asks someone else. He does not respond. Finally on the third request the question is answered and a way to make the missiles ineffective is communicated. All of a sudden the US bombers are ineffective in defending themselves. Has the soldier betrayed his county or done the right thing? The internal strife and conflict is intense because we are in new territory where the old rules don’t always work. Our foundations are being destroyed.
The bombers are nearing their targets and must check in one more time before completing the mission. At the same time the Russians are using a last-ditch effort to destroy the plane by exploding a wall of warheads near the plane. When the commander checks in, his wife is on the other end trying to convince him that everything is fine, there is no war, and he should not drop his bombs. The commander is silent, fighting the urge to give in, and his wife begins screaming that everything is fine, please answer, while his co-pilot and other crewmen are yelling instructions to avoid the missile attack. The editing here is frantic, just like the voices, as the tension builds. Ultimately the pilot cannot listen to his wife – he is trained to believe it is probably a Soviet ploy, and the plane’s strategy to avoid the missile attack is successful. The bomber will succeed in dropping their bombs on Moscow. The bomber crew is successful, but we, the viewers, know it only means death and destruction for no reason. Our tragic flaw cannot be avoided. Our doom is out of our control.
My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie: The dialogue in this film is very straightforward. It is a description of the action as well as stating the tough decisions that must be made. The best lines of dialogue are when the characters state their feelings about the situation they are in.
Billy Flynn: That’s policy, Grady. Eliminates the personal factor. Everything’s more complicated now. Reaction time’s faster. You can’t depend on people the same way.
Colonel Jack Grady, USAF: Who do you depend on?
Officer: Alright, gentleman. The sky awaits.
Colonel Jack Grady, USAF: You know something, Billy? I like the personal factor.
General Black: You’re justifying murder.
Professor Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered!
General Black: You learned too well, professor. Now, there’s no difference between you, and what you want to kill.
Colonel Jack Grady, USAF So I’m taking her in low. When we’re over the target… climbing to 5,000 feet. Bombs are set to go at 5,000 feet . . . . We’ll go with them. Okay?
Airman: What the hell. There’s nothing to go home to anyway.
One of the most dramatic pieces of dialogue is not a word, but a sound – the high-pitched squeal of a phone melting.
Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie: This movie is not subtle. In fact, one criticism against it is that it is too melodramatic. But when you are talking about the unavoidable deaths of millions of people can you, should you, be subtle?
The movie is shot in black and white. The subject matter requires the dramatic abstraction that black and white brings. The movie would not have as dramatic an impact if it were shot in color. It is interesting that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is also shot in black and white.
In addition to being in black and white, the lighting is high contrast with strong shadows. Faces are shown in half light and half dark as they are forced into life and death decisions. At an important moment in announcing his decision on how to deal with the situation, which will result in millions of deaths, the president’s face is almost totally obscured in shadow.
The tension builds from the very beginning to the ultimate climax and “resolution.” There is conflict in every scene, from the seeming romantic encounter that turns to conflict at the start, through intellectuals arguing about nuclear war, up to the internal conflict of a President having to make a horrific decision. Close-ups are used to show the tension and conflict of those in this terrible situation. It helps us viewers feel part of the action and feel the strong emotion.
Machines are an important part of the story. There are many close-ups of technical equipment – the fail safe box, the video screen to watch the flight of the bombers. Even telephones loom large and are shown as large as the people using them.
This is a very masculine movie. Women only have very small roles and appear for a short time.
There is no music in this film and no soundtrack was recorded.
The story is told from four different vantage points – the control room overseeing the mission, the President isolated in a bunker, the Pentagon intellectuals arguing about nuclear war, and the bomber crew actually on the mission. Each group sees the situation from their viewpoint and there are differences in how they respond.
Besides the horror of nuclear war, there are many sub-themes: Man vs. machine; Are our machines forcing us to make decisions too fast?; If we use nuclear weapons are we just as bad as our enemy?; and, Is following orders always the right thing to do?
Trivia: This film was released about 9 months after Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, a film that deals with very similar subject matter. The brilliance and black humor of that film stole the thunder from Fai-Safe. Dr. Strangelove was a box-office hit, while Fail-Safe was considered a relative failure. Both films were released by the same studio, Columbia.
Fail-Safe was a best-selling novel before it was released as a film. The authors of the novel were Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It was published in series form in three installments in the Saturday Evening Post on October 13, 20, and 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fail-Safe was considered to be very similar to an earlier novel (1958) by Peter George, called Red Alert. Red Alert was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Peter George sued the authors of Fail-Safe on a charge of plagiarism and the suit was settled out-of-court.
On April 9, 2000, a live, televised version of Fail-Safe was shown on CBS. It was directed by Stephen Frears, and George Clooney acted in it and was an Executive Producer of the program.
Video Clip of climax scene
Thanks, Rick! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!
We already have a set of classic 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 60s Movies.
We have 31 volunteers. I have put in bold those who have already sent their guest post to me.
Ipsita Barik – Rosemary’s Baby
Ipsita Barik – Bonnie and Clyde
Mike Dobbins – The Sound of Music
Brandnewusedcar – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Markham Cook – Jules et Jim
Steve Cook – The Blue Max
JasperLamarCrab – 2001: A Space Odyssey
N D – Lonely are the Brave
Drew Dorenfest – Easy Rider
Rick Dyke – Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Rick Dyke – Fail Safe
Felicity Flesher – The Music Man
PaulG – Lawrence of Arabia
D.L. Gill – Zulu
Jeff Guenther – Cool Hand Luke
Kate Hagen – Repulsion
John Henderson – Night of the Living Dead
John Henderson – The Odd Couple
John Hörnschemeyer – The Graduate
Zach Jansen – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Will King – The Pink Panther
William Leitch – If…
Lisaisfunny – Blow Up
Jack McDonald – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nick – Lonely are the Brave
Daryl Powell – The Apartment
jprichard – Persona
Ally Shina – The Jungle Book
Mark Twain – The Loved One
Liz Warner – The Manchurian Candidate
Michael Waters – Dr. No
For those who have signed up, but have yet to email me your post, please do so ASAP.
Thanks in advance!
For the original post explaining the series, go here.