It is almost impossible to discuss Sidney Lumet’s Cold War thriller Fail Safe without also considering its more financially successful cinematic foil and fellow 1964 Columbia Pictures release, Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The two films reveal striking structural and narrative similarities and almost no tonal ones. As such, however, they also make for fascinating companion pieces, and throw their directors’ respective visions into sharper relief.
Both movies show men operating within remorseless systems (in fact, both show men operating within the same remorseless system, namely the United States nuclear apparatus), but in Strangelove’s case, there’s a liberating nihilism to Kubrick’s vision, as the system unleashes the characters’ monstrosity—their zeal for war, their twisted notions of civilization, their fantasies of survival. With Fail Safe, while the system defeats the characters, the film allows them to assert their humanity in small yet profound ways, as Lumet puts us in the middle of this drama with an immediacy that evokes the title of one of the CBS television shows on which he cut his teeth in the fifties: You Are There. Kubrick may still make us weep for the world (albeit by first making us laugh at it), but Lumet makes us weep for ourselves and our loved ones.
But one does not need to have seen Dr. Strangelove to appreciate the countervailing humanism in Lumet’s film. It’s there right at the beginning, as we’re shown some of the central characters in the context of their personal lives: somewhere in New York, General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) wakes from a recurring nightmare about a bull being speared by a mysterious matador, hugs his sleeping sons goodbye, has an intimate conversation with his wife; Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) holds forth at a Washington, D.C., dinner party, his articulate, provocative ruminations about the winnability of nuclear war drawing the attention of a beautiful young woman; in Omaha, Nebraska, home of the United States Strategic Air Command, General Bogan (Frank Overton) retrieves the proud, forlorn Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) from a ratty basement apartment where his alcoholic parents are living in squalor. These incidents are all taken from the film’s source novel, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, but in the hands of Lumet and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, they are given a messy, lived-in vibrancy.
An attentiveness to the mundane details of our existence, a vivid sense of lived experience, was among the central threads in the director’s career. Having come of age in the New York Yiddish theater and on Broadway as a child actor, Lumet began directing for the stage after World War II and then, in the early fifties, working in the flourishing world of TV dramas, where the elements that would define his subsequent oeuvre quickly emerged—he brought a brisk vitality and a generosity with performers to shows like Danger, Kraft Television Theatre, and Playhouse 90. The regular TV gigs eventually led to feature directing assignments, and Lumet carried many of the lessons he’d learned in one industry to the other. He worked efficiently, energetically, and economically but always with an eye toward privileging human moments and interactions. The dramatic arc of a Lumet film is often conveyed through the way he shoots faces—few American directors have been as effective at registering the subtle glances and expressions that speak of unfathomable inner torment—and through his characters’ positioning and framing against one another. But all this is rarely done overtly, and Lumet’s own modesty prevented him from ever becoming a cinematic show-off. Maybe that’s why he still isn’t regarded as much of a stylist, even though his place in the pantheon of American directors is now fairly secure. One need only observe the blocking of 12 Angry Men (1957), his first theatrical feature, with its almost dancelike progression from physical unity to discord, to see that this wasn’t just a point-and-shoot director who was only as good as his scripts.It was on the CBS show Danger that Lumet got one of his first big breaks and met an important collaborator. Working as an assistant to Yul Brynner, who was at the time a rising TV director and a not particularly well-known stage actor, Lumet took over helming duties when Brynner was called on to perform in the Broadway musical The King and I (which would, of course, turn him into a star). That first episode of Danger that Lumet wound up working on was written by Bernstein, who was about to be blacklisted, and whose subsequent contributions to the show would go uncredited. Bernstein and Lumet became quick friends, and the director would help the writer continue to find work throughout the blacklist era.
“It’s a procedural thriller set in a world that is both physically and philosophically isolated—but it is also haunted by a real-life churning beyond its immediate borders.”
Lumet’s early films evince a fascination with working-class subjects and kitchen-sink realism (A View from the Bridge, 1962; The Pawnbroker, 1964), but, perhaps thanks to his TV background, he was also fond of—and quite proficient at—tight moral conflicts staged in confined settings (12 Angry Men). Later in his career, Lumet would merge these interests in procedural dramas such as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), and Q&A (1990)—movies that combine a gritty, urban immediacy with complicated tales of loyalty and betrayal. But we can already see these ideas starting to fuse in Fail Safe: it’s a procedural thriller set in a world that is both physically and philosophically isolated—but it is also haunted by a real-life churning beyond its immediate borders.Take those opening shots of our characters out in the real world before they’re consumed by the film’s main narrative. Through these vignettes, Lumet and Bernstein sketch a society on edge, filled with troubled, broken people. Lumet would, in later years, dismiss these moments as unnecessary bits of pat realism. The scenes do stand in sharp contrast with much of the rest of Fail Safe, which will play out in stark rooms where people interact not so much with each other as with machines—with telephones, screens, planes, transmitters, and, of course, bombs. But today, that contrast feels like a pointed one, a perhaps inadvertent formal gambit suggesting one type of film being taken over by another—a chaotic human reality overwhelmed by a highly organized and vast, warlike machine. What’s more, this sense of human reality will come screaming back at the very end of the film, as we suddenly see a rapid-fire series of documentary glimpses of life in New York City right before the bomb falls, a heartbreaking reminder that the actions of these quiet men in quiet rooms have earth-shattering and monstrous consequences.
The four figures introduced in the opening scenes aren’t the only ones that the film will focus on. There are also Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), the pilot of the rogue bomber that, due to a transmitter malfunction, will receive a coded message directing it to attack Moscow; and Peter Buck (Larry Hagman), the young translator tasked with helping the president (Henry Fonda) talk to the Soviet premier. And naturally there’s the president himself, yet another of Fonda’s soft-spoken, serious men of virtue; one could imagine him as still being the sensitive holdout of 12 Angry Men, only now elected to the highest office in the land thanks to his superhuman decency.
Many of these men will find their private lives intruding on their duties: Grady, long after his plane has crossed into Soviet airspace and begun its now-irreversible mission, will get an impassioned call from his distraught wife (an incident Bernstein invented for the film), attempting to convince him to turn back; the president, in order to avert a global apocalypse and to make up for his bomber’s accidental destruction of Moscow, will wind up ordering a nuclear strike on New York, knowing full well that the First Lady is visiting the city. Later, as Bogan speaks to a Soviet general on the phone, he asks whether he has relocated from Moscow so as to survive the blast. He hesitates to ask the man about his family, who will presumably perish in the bombing; instead, we simply see Bogan look at a photo of the other general’s wife and kids in a personnel file, in the kind of quietly compassionate cinematic moment that Lumet excelled at.
These aren’t surprising elements for a film made in 1964. Lumet and Bernstein were working within the conventions of Hollywood realism, where characters are given dimension through brief, relatable moments. Look at any World War II combat movie and you’ll see such glimpses of people’s lives back home, their sweethearts and their kids and the ordinary worries they left behind. But such moments stand out in Fail Safe partly because of the incongruity of the setting: this is not the smoking carnage of a European or Japanese battlefield but rather the polite, coolly efficient bureaucratic battlefield of nuclear war. The wives and kids and parents aren’t faces from a seemingly faraway past; in many cases, those faces were seen at home that very morning.
This tension—between the ruthless efficiency of the nuclear machine and the messiness of human existence—also informs the aesthetics of Fail Safe. The production was denied any kind of assistance by the U.S. military, so much so that it wasn’t even allowed access to stock footage of planes or installations. As a result, Lumet—one of the more resourceful of American directors—had to take the meager footage he could find and keep repeating it, often using editing and processing tricks to make the shots appear different from one another. That repetition actually enhances the film’s themes: watching the same plane take off five different times reinforces the idea of a big, complicated machine roaring to life.
Lumet and his team also had to imagine what the military’s various bunkers and war rooms and big boards might look like. To create the animations of the various blips of planes and missiles seen on the massive screens that dominate many of Fail Safe’s spaces, the director turned to the acclaimed animators John and Faith Hubley. The footage the Hubleys created, complete with simulated on-screen flicker and trembling scan lines, expresses the rising agitation of the characters almost better than the characters themselves can, while also driving home the point of a universe in which decision makers have become removed from the real-world horrors of their actions.
“In Lumet’s hands, Fail Safe becomes a film of faces, at times immense, downright expressionistic ones.”
As Fail Safe proceeds and the military-nuclear apparatus kicks into full gear, the men tasked with operating within it try to find ways to hang on to what humanity they have left—and so, in Lumet’s hands, it becomes a film of faces, at times immense, downright expressionistic ones. Consider the sequences in the White House bunker with the president and Buck on the phone with the Soviet premier. When the president first makes the call, he and Buck are each confined to their individual frames, with the phone looming large in the foreground, a simple object given monumental power. Then, in what may be the film’s tensest scene, we see the two men sit in a more straightforward two-shot, each on opposite sides of the table, the phone now normal-sized at the center of the frame. The camera remains fixed, and Lumet doesn’t cut away as the president speaks to the Soviet leader; Buck not only translates but, at the president’s urging, tries to gauge the Russian’s emotional state. It’s an attempt to navigate the technology and find traces of the very real person on the other side of the line.
Later, as the president speaks to the premier and to the two nations’ ambassadors in New York and Moscow, informing them of his plans to bomb New York after Moscow is destroyed (thus also softly informing the two ambassadors that they will be killed in the respective blasts), we see Fonda in close-up, this time with his face obstructed by his hand against his forehead. Again, Lumet holds on the shot, so that this pivotal, agonizing scene plays out without our being able to properly glimpse the actor’s visage. We can certainly understand the president’s anguish, but we don’t really see it—nor, interestingly, do we really feel it. This is Fonda in his classic rational-humanist mode, and yet there’s something horrific about his demeanor too. It is as if the system has incorporated him. He is proposing the one solution that will prevent a worldwide atomic exchange—a limited nuclear self-sacrifice that will result in a “mere” few million civilians dead—but we will soon learn that in doing so he is condemning his own wife to death as well. So the fact that he has to play it as a sober, levelheaded decision feels like its own harrowing defeat.
And then there’s the final time Lumet presents Buck and the president on-screen. It’s the last conversation they have with the premier, who has informed the Americans that his forces will stand down, and that he takes the president at his word. Lumet starts this scene in fragmented, alienating profile shots of Buck and the president, each covered in dark shadows. Buck translates the premier’s words, but the scene is filmed as if he and the president were having a conversation with each other, almost as if Buck has been possessed by the premier. “This was nobody’s fault,” Buck says. “No human being did wrong.” “I don’t agree,” the president responds. “We’re to blame, both of us. We let our machines get out of hand.” As he speaks, the camera starts to move ever so slightly, and his face begins to emerge from the shadows—so that by the time the president says, “What do we do, Mr. Chairman? What do we say to the dead?” we see Fonda in full close-up, his eyes staring directly into ours. Buck’s face comes into the light, too, so that both of them are now looking right at the camera, and at us: “I think, if we are men,” Buck translates, “we must say this will not happen again.” It’s not a subtle effect, to be sure, but by foregrounding the actors’ faces, in all their sweat and tension and heartbreak, Lumet avoids any potential for didacticism, turning this into a moment of overwhelming communal sadness.
In some ways, Lumet’s clear-eyed melancholy in Fail Safe serves a function similar to Kubrick’s delirious buffoonery in Strangelove—it shocks us into paying attention to the absurd moral calculus of this situation. These extremes also allow both movies to transcend their respective source material. The echoes between the two works may not have been entirely coincidental. Kubrick and Peter George, the author of Red Alert, the (dead-serious) novel upon which Dr. Strangelove was based, even sued Burdick and Wheeler—along with the film’s production company and others—for copyright infringement. The suit was settled out of court, but, according to Lumet, one condition was that Kubrick’s distributor, Columbia, would also buy the independently produced Fail Safe. Lumet’s picture had gone into production ahead of Dr. Strangelove, but Columbia released Kubrick’s film first. In the wake of that movie’s zeitgeist-defining success, the earnest drama of Fail Safe must have seemed like a sad transmission from the past, and it quickly faded from the box office.
So why has Fail Safe endured over the years, despite this initial disappointment? Lumet’s ensuing career certainly helped, as he would go on to helm some of the most important American pictures of the sixties and seventies. The power of its subject matter surely contributed as well—and is probably one of the reasons the film resonates so specifically today, when nuclear fears, once supposedly vanquished by the end of the Cold War, have come charging back. But ironically, Dr. Strangelove probably helped too. As Kubrick’s comedy went from box-office hit to epochal classic, it brought Fail Safe along with it, like a cinematic phantom limb, a direct expression of the human sense of tragedy that is Dr. Strangelove’s defining absence.
“I’m not directing the moral message,” Lumet said of his body of work in a 2008 interview, featured in the documentary By Sidney Lumet. “I’m directing that piece and those people. And if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” It’s a rewarding way to look at the dilemmas featured in his pictures, many of which show individuals—whistle-blowers and turncoats, crooks and cops, politicians and ordinary people—coming into conflict and undermining systems designed to chew them up. But in Fail Safe, he shows us a system built on the very denial of humanity, one in which individual efforts are completely ineffective and bravery is rendered useless. This is the one Lumet film that presents us with a world in which morality is impossible. And it is the world we have been living in for decades, and continue to live in today.