Fail Safe is a tense and suspenseful piece of filmmaking dealing with the frightening implications of accidental nuclear warfare. It faithfully translates on the screen the power and seething drama of the Eugene Burdick-Harvey Wheeler book.

Fail Safe is a tense and suspenseful piece of filmmaking dealing with the frightening implications of accidental nuclear warfare. It faithfully translates on the screen the power and seething drama of the Eugene Burdick-Harvey Wheeler book, capturing the full menace of the Strategic Air Command’s fail-safe device in respect to its possible malfunction, and paints a vivid canvas of an imaginary situation which conceivably could arise.

An earlier Columbia release, Dr Strangelove dealt with precisely the same situation: a US plane loaded with hydrogen bombs is flying toward Moscow and because of technical difficulties barring any communication it is impossible to recall the bomber before it can drop its deadly cargo which unquestionably will launch a world holocaust.

Identical basic premise and attendant situations between the two story properties led to Columbia and others attached to the production of Strangelove to file a Federal Court suit against the authors of Fail Safe, the book’s publishers and the production company – ECA – which had announced it would film the tome. Charge was made that Safe was plagiarized from book on which Strangelove was based. Controversy was finally resolved when Columbia took over the financing-distribution of Safe and Max E. Youngstein, whose ECA unit had planned its indie production before dissolving, swung over as producer.

Fail Safe is a gripping narrative realistically and almost frighteningly told as the US goes all-out to halt the plane carrying the bombs, even to the extent of trying to shoot it down and advising the Russians of their peril and urging them to destroy the plane. Particularly dramatic are the sequences in which the president – tellingly portrayed by Henry Fonda – talks with the Russian premier over the ‘hot wire’.

Fonda is the only big name in the cast, which uniformly is topflight and socks over respective roles. Frank Overton, as the general in charge of the SAC base in Omaha, home of the fail-safe mechanism which fails to act properly, is a particular standout; Dan O’Herlihy, Edward Binns and Fritz Weaver score as army officers; Walter Matthau as a professor who urges that the US attack the Soviets, and Larry Hagman as the president’s interpreter.

Fail Safe

Production

Columbia. Director Sidney Lumet; Producer Max E. Youngstein; Screenplay Walter Bernstein; Camera Gerald Hirschfeld; Editor Ralph Rosenblum; Music [none]; Art Director Albert Brenner

Crew

(B&W) Available on DVD. Extract of a review from 1964. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Henry Fonda
Walter Matthau
Frank Overton
Dan O'Herlihy
Fritz Weaver
Larry Hagman
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