Cold War classic debuts on Blu-ray 4 Stars

After a critically acclaimed and auspicious debut with 12 Angry Men (1957), director Sidney Lumet was launched on a legendary career. Coming in just shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe is a very somber look at what might happen if a misunderstanding leads us into nuclear combat. Originally released on DVD by Sony years ago, Criterion has licensed the film for inclusion into their collection and given the movie its Blu-ray debut.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Released: 07 Oct 1964
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 112 min
Director: Sidney Lumet
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns
Writer(s): Walter Bernstein (screenplay), Eugene Burdick (from the novel by), Harvey Wheeler (from the novel by)
Plot: American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Can all-out war be averted?
IMDB rating: 8.0
MetaScore: 75

Disc Information
Studio: Sony
Distributed By: Criterion Collection
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 52 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 01/28/2020
MSRP: $39.99

The Production: 4.5/5

During a VIP visit at the Strategic Air Command headquarters at Omaha, a radar picks up an unidentified aircraft entering American airspace. It turns out to be a civilian aircraft, but a technical error apparently alerts a bomber group led by Col. Jack Grady (Edward Binns) to attack Moscow. With attempts to recall the bomber failing and tensions rising over what to do next, the President (Henry Fonda) contacts the Chairman of the Soviet Union in an attempt to avert a full scale nuclear war; the proposal that is offered up is shocking, but it might be the only way to avoid a full scale nuclear Armageddon should Grady and his men successfully complete their mission…

Made during the height of Cold War tensions, Fail Safe is very straightforward at depicting the potential of an error causing an all out nuclear combat. Amazingly, the movie bears some similarities to another film showing a potential nuclear combat between the US and the Soviet Union, the classic black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); the parallels were so apparent that it was also the subject of a lawsuit aimed at this movie, delaying its release. Similarities aside, this movie generates tension almost right from the very beginning and highlights the shortcomings of both hawkish and dovish mentalities in approaching nuclear combat; they’re basically rendered moot once a mechanical failure causes both sides to uneasily work together to try to avert a global catastrophe. Better yet, Sidney Lumet doesn’t seem to overstate the main point of the story nor does he meet it half way in his direction; in fact, some of the limitations he had in making the movie (a modest budget and a limited number of sets) only seem to enhance the story and tension rather than detract from it. While problems during its release prevented it from reaching greater heights, Fail Safe should now be looked at as one of the great movies of the 1960’s and as a realistic look at what might happen in an all-too-real nightmare of nuclear combat (a scenario this writer hopes never comes to pass).

Getting top billing here, Dan O’Herlihy is great as the Air Force general tasked with both trying to avert potential catastrophe and carrying through Plan B once it become clear that it might be the only option to prevent a full scale nuclear war; it would be one of his best performances in a career that included an Oscar nominated performance in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1952) and cult appearances in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and RoboCop (1987). As the President of the United States trying to stop nuclear war, Henry Fonda lends an air of grace, gravitas and conviction to the part; he would also play the President in the AIP disaster picture Meteor (1979). Walter Matthau has a notable part as the gung ho political professor and Department of Defense advisor advocating for a limited nuclear strike; it would serve as another stepping stone towards his eventual Oscar winning breakthrough part in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Other notable parts include Frank Overton as the USAF general in charge of the Omaha command center, Fritz Weaver (in his film debut) as an unsteady colonel, Edward Binns as Colonel Grady, Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing himself) as the President’s interpreter, Sorrell Booke (in pre-Boss Hogg mode here) as the congressman with a front row seat to the chaos, William Hansen as the Secretary of Defense, Janet Ward as Grady’s frantic wife, Dana Elcar as a guest of a Washington D.C. party, and Dom DeLuise in an early role as a technical sergeant stationed at Omaha.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release, taken from a brand new 4K digital restoration. Film grain is organic and sturdy throughout with grays and blacks strong and inky and fine details rendered faithfully as well. There’s next to no instances of scratches, dirt, or print damage present which makes this a major upgrade over the previous DVD and likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.

Audio: 5/5

The original monaural soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue is both strong and clear and the sound effects mix also has clarity and fidelity without being obtrusive (there’s no music score in the movie). Problems like distortion, hissing or crackling are either very minimal or nonexistent, which makes this another improvement over the DVD and likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.

Special Features: 3/5

Commentary by director Sidney Lumet – Carried over from the 2000 Columbia/TriStar DVD, the director talks about some of the background details of the movie, including some difficulties with procuring stock footage.

Fail Safe and the Cold War (19:30) – This newly filmed feature has critic J. Hoberman looking at the movie’s place in cultural and historical context, as well as its place in the subgenre of Cold War and nuclear paranoia films.

Fail Safe” Revisited (16:00) – Also carried over from the Columbia/TriStar DVD, this brief retrospective featurette covers some of the details on the film’s production; those interviewed here are Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actor Dan O’Herlihy and George Clooney, who appeared in the 2000 TV remake of the movie.

Foldout featuring an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri

Notably missing here is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which was present on the Columbia/TriStar DVD.

 

Overall: 4/5

While it was underappreciated during its initial run, Fail Safe has emerged as not only one of director Sidney Lumet’s best works, but as one of the best movies of the 1960’s. Criterion has done another great job with this release, with their standard high marks in both visual and audio presentation and a decent slate of both new and legacy special features. An easy upgrade over the previous DVD and very highly recommended.

https://www.amazon.com/Fail-Safe-Criterion-Collection-Blu-ray/dp/B07Z76B29R/ref=sr_1_5?crid=3EHN86QCA3Z6F&keywords=fail+safe&qid=1582308762&s=movies-tv&sprefix=fail%2Caps%2C234&sr=1-5

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skylark68

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Great review of this fine film. I agree with your assessment, it looks and sounds wonderful. It’s much better than the old DVD release I’ve had for years. The only bonus feature I would have loved to have is the 2000 remake included as well. I’ve had that dvd for a long time as well and saw it during its live performance. I suppose it would have probably just have been ported over in SD but it would have saved me some space in my library...
 

t1g3r5fan

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@t1g3r5fan You mention problems during the release. Was that the legal issue you mentioned or something else? I have always liked this film and agree with @skylark68 that it would have been nice to have the live broadcast version too.
The legal problem was that the movie, according to both Stanley Kubrick and Peter George, too closely resembled Dr. Strangelove and was the basis of a copyright infringement lawsuit. The case ended up being settled out of court and Dr. Strangelove was released first, but the damage was done to Fail Safe and it basically ensured the latter movie would not have much success at the box office.
 

Jeffrey D

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Strangelove and Fail Safe are both fine films. I still think it’s a shame that Lumet never won an Oscar- great filmmaker (Network should have beaten Rocky at the Academy Awards).
 
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Johnny Angell

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The legal problem was that the movie, according to both Stanley Kubrick and Peter George, too closely resembled Dr. Strangelove and was the basis of a copyright infringement lawsuit. The case ended up being settled out of court and Dr. Strangelove was released first, but the damage was done to Fail Safe and it basically ensured the latter movie would not have much success at the box office.
I would have thought that since the movie was based on a novel, that there wouldn’t have been a legal problem. Also, Strangelove and Fail-Safe are very different movies.

The novel had been serialized in either Life or Look magazines and it was a big seller. It’s not like the plot came out of nowhere.
 

lark144

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Anything should have beaten Rocky at the Academy Awards.
Not to take this thread away from FAIL SAFE (& Mychal, now that I've read your excellent review I can't wait to see it again) but at the MOMA press conference for his retrospective back in '76 or '77, Yoji Yamada was asked what was his favorite American film was, and he responded ROCKY, but of course the director of Tora-San would feel very sympathetic towards a depiction of a hard-scrabble working class family, and ignore the film's swagger, inauthenticity and phony uplift.
 
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Johnny Angell

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I watched this last night. What a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension this film does. All the cast is fine, but seeing Don De Louise takes me out of the film a bit. Of course a casting director can’t look into a crystal ball and see the actor’s future career.

OMG, this film’s budget needed a few more bucks. Those big screens were terribly distracting and I recognized some of the oldest stock footage there is. That’s the only negative I have about the film.

Listened to the director’s commentary for about 15’ and found it boring. Too much “what a lovely person he is” and not enough about the film. Perhaps it gets better.

If there were an Oscar category titled “Yeah, I Believe This Guy is POTUS” then Henry Fonda wins it hands down for all time with Fail Safe.
 

Reed Grele

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This was one of those films of my childhood (1960's) that scared the pants off me! The monster movies that my Mom said would give me nightmares never bothered me a bit. Even at a young age I could discern between fantasy and reality. But it was the great acting and the buildup of tension it caused that made my skin crawl. For years afterwards, I would always look skyward in fear when I saw a military jet fly over, or heard a sonic boom, always wondering if that was the prelude to an all out nuclear war! You didn't need special effects or CGI back then to make a scary movie.
 

bujaki

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I used to book films for my boarding school, ages 12-18 (I was 15), so I booked Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove two weeks apart. Beautiful 35mm prints with subtitles, of course, this being Puerto Rico.
Fail Safe was a resounding success. I received a physical beating from the "savages" after Dr. Strangelove. It seems I was the only one laughing.
 

Johnny Angell

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I used to book films for my boarding school, ages 12-18 (I was 15), so I booked Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove two weeks apart. Beautiful 35mm prints with subtitles, of course, this being Puerto Rico.
Fail Safe was a resounding success. I received a physical beating from the "savages" after Dr. Strangelove. It seems I was the only one laughing.
That’s a tough audience.
 

Jack P

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The live 2000 version is available on DVD and because it was "live" it can't look better on a Blu-Ray. Frankly the live version came off as unbelievably pointless to me, because "Fail Safe" is a product of its time speculating about a possible future event within the contemporary setting it was made. To remake it as a period piece set in 1964 when that *isn't* what happened is just silly IMO, especially since all it did was recycle the film script but it had to shorten it to accommodate the TV slot (and in the process the Groteschele character lost all traces of nuance and became a one-note nut; on top of that the character of Colonel Cascio is altered and gets a terrible performance as well). It's one thing when you had a live TV production in the 50s expanded into a feature production, but to take a film that is still largely no different from a live TV production to begin with and then contracting it into a more restrictive format with a shorter script (and making it a total anachronism as well) decades later comes off only as the pet George Clooney ego project that it ultimately was (he wanted to do it, so he had the clout to get it done even though there was no need for it)
 
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Johnny Angell

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It is my recollection that for the live TV version, it was performed twice, once for eastern and central times zones, and again for the western time zone. I also recall that there was an intentional line or two of dialogue that was different in the western time zone version.
 

Robin9

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. . . . . Listened to the director’s commentary for about 15’ and found it boring. Too much “what a lovely person he is” and not enough about the film. Perhaps it gets better.
Most commentary tracks either bore me to tears or irritate me enormously so normally I don't bother with them. I found Mr. Lumet's excellent. He gives details about how they made the film and - to me - interesting points about composition and camera placement.
 

Jeffrey D

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Most commentary tracks either bore me to tears or irritate me enormously so normally I don't bother with them. I found Mr. Lumet's excellent. He gives details about how they made the film and - to me - interesting points about composition and camera placement.
His tracks for Dog Day Afternoon and Network are good ones too.