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Fail-Safe: Special Edition (1964)

It seems not that long ago that film fans were debating the merits of two asteroid-hurtling-towards-Earth movies, but in 1964 moviegoers faced an equally odd situation, as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe arrived within months of each other, and if the tenor of each film can be set aside for a moment, they have remarkably similar plots. What's more, both films were released by Columbia Pictures (to the detriment of Fail-Safe in fact, which debuted after Strangelove and had a weaker box-office). Why the similarities? As it turns out, Kubrick relied on a novel called Red Alert by Peter George for his source material, while Fail-Safe was directly adapted from the 1962 best-seller by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Not long after that novel appeared and the film project got underway, Kubrick and Columbia sued the publishers of Fail-Safe for plagiarism. The suit eventually was settled out of court, and part of the settlement was that Columbia would release Fail-Safe theatrically. Since then, Strangelove has become one of the most critically acclaimed films in history, and arguably the screen's greatest comedy. But while also critically and popularly received, Fail-Safe has always lived in Strangelove's shadow — after all, we've all seen the black-comic gags in the War Room in Kubrick's version of events, making it difficult to view Fail-Safe from a fresh vantage point. That's unfortunate, because Fail-Safe is undoubtedly the finest Cold War thriller ever made, an important cautionary tale about nations, politicians, soldiers, and machines all teetering on the brink of self-extermination.

Fail-Safe begins rather ingeniously with a U.S. Congressman who deals with military appropriations being given a tour of a high-tech command-and-control installation, where complex instruments and wall-sized screens monitor military activity around the world, always ready to send the American armed forces to heightened alert over the slightest anomaly of data. In the meantime, the Joint Chiefs of Staff debate nuclear policy at the Pentagon, joined by hawkish academic Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), a civilian advisor who hates communism and believes that a nuclear war can be won — opinions that usually place him in conflict with the rational-minded Gen. Black (Dan O'Herlihy). But when a technical glitch sends a USAF bomber past its "fail-safe" point and on a mission to destroy Moscow, the President (Henry Fonda) retreats to his bunker under the White House, joined only by an interpreter (Larry Hagman). Working the phones between Washington and Moscow, the President keeps the Soviet premier informed of the bomber's progress into Soviet airspace, hoping to avert a retaliatory strike and nuclear holocaust.

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The brilliance of Fail-Safe can be distilled into a few separate elements. The methodical Lumet does a fine job of underplaying a lot of the camera-work, fully aware that the script has more than enough punch to carry the film. As such, there are just a few spare locations — the Pentagon, the President's bunker, the bomber's cockpit — where Lumet exploits the dramatic potential with tense long-takes (an extended two-shot of Fonda and Hagman is memorable) and a seemingly endless series of close-ups that ratchet up the tension that much more. The stark black-and-white photography, masterfully handled by cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, plays with light and shadow, often going for high-contrast compositions. And with that sort of aesthetic, Fail-Safe is almost a pure actor's movie, a film that completely depends on the performers, and particularly their vocal skills. Fonda is so compelling as the President, with his mix of midwestern common sense and raw determination, that Lumet recalls "Everybody in the United States would have voted for Henry Fonda for president if he had ever decided to run." Hagman is given the most challenging role as the President's interpreter Buck, and in fact he has three things to do at once — convey the language he hears on the phone, try to relate the mood and tone of his subjects, and contain his own rising tension during the nuclear crisis. But perhaps best of all is Matthau as Groeteschele, a chilling turn that came before he established himself as one of America's foremost film comedians. The scene when he declares, in a calm manner, that if New York is annihilated it would need to be excavated for corporate records, because "our economy depends on it," is a small, shattering moment.

Columbia TriStar's Fail-Safe: Special Edition is a quality DVD release that will not disappoint those who have seen the film, nor those who plan to give it a spin for the first time. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is solid, from a reliable source print that has a high-grain quality, but which only enhances the film, and clear, crisp audio is in the original mono (DD 2.0). Features include a commentary track by director Lumet, who talks about everything from his actors to film adaptations; the original short "Fail-Safe Revisited," featuring interviews with Lumet, actor O'Herlihy, blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and George Clooney, who produced a live-television Fail-Safe in 2000; the original trailer; and cast notes.

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