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.
“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.”
“In Lumet’s hands, Fail Safe becomes a film of faces, at times immense, downright expressionistic ones.”
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