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Sidney Lumet
Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy
Writing Credits:
Walter Bernstein

A computer error threatens to cause World War III.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English PCM 1.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 112 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 1/28/20

• Audio Commentary with Director Sidney Lumet
• “Fail-Safe Revisited” Featurette
• Interview with Critic J. Hoberman
• Booklet


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Fail-Safe: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1964)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2020)

A drama that looks at the potential end of the world, 1964’s Fail-Safe takes its story from a 1962 novel. Early in the film, the US Strategic Air Command receives a warning that an unidentified aircraft breached American airspace.

The authorities quickly learn that this is a civilian plane that went off its planned path. As such, the alert gets canceled.

However, a computer error occurs, and one US bomber group receives orders to attack the Soviet Union. All involved scramble against time to stop this incursion and prevent World War III.

All at once, Fail-Safe seems both woefully dated and fresh as a daisy. On one hand, the film's tale of mechanical failure that risks apocalyptic results feels like a product of its times.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War raged and Americans feared that nuclear bombs would fall at any time. This attitude actually helped sway the 1964 presidential election toward incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson.

Granted, he probably would have won anyway - after the then-recent trauma of the Kennedy assassination, I don't think Americans were too eager to disrupt the administration - but the nation's worries about Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's hawkish attitudes definitely helped the Johnson camp. Johnson’s camp exploited these concerns via the famous “Daisy” TV ad in which the implication relates “Vote Johnson or Die!”

As such, Fail-Safe clearly brings a product of its time. As one who didn't go through that age of the Cuban Missile Crisis and "duck and cover", it can seem hard to relate to the intense fear and paranoia that must have been pervasive.

Or is it? I can't speak for those younger than I, but I know that those in my generation - I'm 52 - went through experiences that were at least moderately similar.

No, we didn't witness anything as scary as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the atmosphere in the early 1980s didn’t seem conducive to world peace. Many of us faced the Reagan presidency with the same fears that would have greeted Goldwater's ascension to the highest office in the Land, as we were convinced "Ronnie Raygun" would eventually go loopy and cause all of us to go boom.

Last time I looked, that never happened, and the collapse of Eastern European communism lessened fears of nuclear annihilation. Still, those nukes remain out there, and God knows what the future may bring.

This means films like Fail-Safe remain topical. Actually, the movie transcends the nuclear subject, for the picture's also about the dangers of automation.

The nightmare depicted in the story doesn't occur due to some psychotic leader with an itchy trigger-finger. Instead, everything falls apart because of technical malfunctions that snowball past the point of no return.

Despite the dated elements, Fail-Safe still works pretty well - at least until the implausible conclusion. I won't discuss the ending, since it might spoil the film for some of you, but I it seems far-fetched.

The film boasts a strong cast, from Henry Fonda as the kind of intelligent, calm, and reassuring president most of us wish we really had, to Walter Matthau as an aggressive theorist to Dan O'Herlihy as a thoughtful, peace-striving general. Although a few moments came across as overly emotive, for the most part the cast plays it cool and with honesty.

Director Sidney Lumet paces the film appropriately and creates a great deal of tension. This is a taut little movie that leaves little room for fluff and extraneous exposition.

Okay, that's not completely true, at least on the surface, as for the first act of the picture, I felt somewhat impatient because the film seems to set up the characters in unnecessary ways. However, as the story progresses, I realized that what appeared less-than-useful at the start of the movie became more significant as it continued.

Ultimately, Fail-Safe makes for a darned compelling little thriller. Although parts of it seem dated, the message of the film remains important and the impact stays strong. Fail-Safe packs a punch and works well.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Fail-Safe appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Despite some issues inherent to the source, this became a pleasing transfer.

For the most part, sharpness seemed positive. Occasional instances of softness appeared, abetted by photographic styles like process shots that impacted accuracy.

Still, the image remained well-defined most of the time, and I saw no issues with jagged edges. Shimmering popped up during shots of the War Room viewscreen, but those related to the source.

I saw no edge haloes, and print flaws remained absent. Blacks could seem a little too dark, and shadows occasionally felt a bit murky, but again, these appeared to reflect the original photography. No one will use this as a demo image, but the Blu-ray replicated the film well.

In addition, the movie’s PCM monaural audio worked fine given its age and inherent restrictions. While speech showed the expected reedy tones, the lines were easy to understand and lacked edginess.

Fail-Safe lacked a score, so music didn’t become a factor. Effects came across as reasonably accurate, and the track lacked noise or other concerns. Nothing here excelled, but the audio seemed more than adequate for a movie from 1964.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2000? The lossless audio felt a bit richer, though the nature of the 56-year-old monaural source restricted improvements.

On the other hand, the Blu-ray brought major growth in terms of visuals, as it looked cleaner, tighter and more film-like than the dated DVD. This was a considerable upgrade.

The Criterion release includes old and new extras, and in the former category, we get an audio commentary from director Sidney Lumet. The worst aspect of this track stems from the many empty gaps that confront the listener, as Lumet can go for long stretches without any remarks.

However, when the director speaks, his statements usually seem informative and insightful. He discusses a wide variety of topics, from the controversies in regard to Dr. Strangelove to his opinions of movie scores to his attitudes toward filmmaking in general.

Actually, I don't think the preponderance of Lumet's statements address Fail-Safe itself, so if you want to hear lots of details about the film, you'll probably feel disappointed by this commentary.

However, if you'd be entertained by a veteran filmmaker's opinions of a variety of movie-related subjects. The many gaps bring frustration, but the content merits a listen anyway.

Also found on the old DVD, Revisiting Fail-Safe. This program goes for 16 minutes and includes comments from Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actor Dan O' Herlihy and George Clooney, a participant in a Fail-Safe remake from 2000.

“Revisiting” provides a fairly brief but generally solid overview of the film's background and creation. It touches upon the political climate during the era, issues related to Dr. Strangelove, and a variety of other topics. Ultimately, it's a fairly good show, but it's too brief to be as valuable as I’d like.

New to the Criterion set, we find an Interview with Critic J. Hoberman. In this 19-minute, 30-second piece, Hoberman looks at the Cold War era and its reflection in films as well as aspects of Fail-Safe. Hoberman offers a good overview.

As expected, the package concludes with a booklet. It brings a mini-poster on one side and an essay from critic Bilge Ebiri on the other. This becomes a decent addition.

Despite some elements that didn’t age well, Fail-Safe generally provides a tight and compelling drama about the perils of the mechanized nuclear age. The film benefits from taut direction and an excellent cast, all of which help make it memorable. The Blu-ray brings generally positive picture and audio as well as a few informative bonus features. It’ll always live in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove, but Fail-Safe deserves notice on its own.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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