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FAIL SAFE (director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriter: Walter Bernstein/from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler; cinematographer: Gerald Hirschfeld; editor: Ralph Rosenblum; cast: Henry Fonda (President), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (Gen. Bogan), Edward Binns (Col. Grady), Dan O’Herlihy (Gen. Black), Fritz Weaver (Col. Cascio), Larry Hagman (Buck), Sorrell Booke (Congressman Raskob), Dom DeLuise (Sgt. Collins), William Hansen (Secretary Swenson), Nancy Berg (Mrs Wolfe); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sidney Lumet; Columbia Pictures; 1964)
“Tense, chilling and earnest Cold War political thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men”/”Q & A”/”Serpico”) ably directs this tense, chilling and earnest Cold War political thriller that’s based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The screenplay is by Walter Bernstein. It deals with a deadly serious situation arising over accidental nuclear war. It didn’t make as big an impact as did Dr. Strangelove, a bitingly funny satire on nuclear war, which held the same theme and was released just before this film.

Bombers from the Strategic Air Command (headquarters in Omaha) are called out to the fail-safe point to answer for an object detected over US airspace. The nuclear strike is called off when it’s determined that a plane is off course. But due to a break down in the electrical system, caused by a computer error, one bomber goes past the fail safe point for Moscow–with orders not to turn back no matter what. The US President (Henry Fonda), in a cold sweat, gets on the hot-line with his Russian counterpart and through his interpreter (Larry Hagman) advises him of the situation as the two leaders try to avert a major catastrophe. The US must then put all its resources into halting that bomber squadron from carrying out the nuclear attack, which involves giving the Commies the top-secret information needed to shoot down the one runaway plane flown by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns) that got through. If the matter can’t be resolved, New York City faces annihilation by the US president to avert a full-scale nuclear war.

The bleak atmospheric drama imaginatively builds a conceivable situation that could arise to cause a nuclear disaster due to a malfunction. It seems to be a warning that you can’t trust machines completely; you’re better off keeping things as much as possible in the hands of humans, as machines can get out-of-control to a point where humans can’t stop them.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”