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Fail-Safe (1964)

Not Rated | | Drama, Thriller | 1965 (UK)
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?

Director:

Sidney Lumet

Writers:

Walter Bernstein (screenplay), Eugene Burdick (from the novel by) | 1 more credit »
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3 nominations. See more awards »

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
Dan O'Herlihy ... Gen. Black
Walter Matthau ... Dr. Groeteschele
Frank Overton ... Gen. Bogan
Edward Binns ... Col. Grady (as Ed Binns)
Fritz Weaver ... Col. Cascio
Henry Fonda ... The President
Larry Hagman ... Buck
William Hansen William Hansen ... Secretary Swenson
Russell Hardie ... Gen. Stark (as Russell Hardy)
Russell Collins ... Knapp
Sorrell Booke ... Congressman Raskob
Nancy Berg Nancy Berg ... Ilsa Wolfe
John Connell ... Thomas
Frank Simpson Frank Simpson ... Sullivan
Hildy Parks ... Betty Black
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Storyline

A series of human and computer errors sends a squadron of American 'Vindicator' bombers to nuke Moscow. The President, in order to convince the Soviets that this is a mistake, orders the Strategic Air Command to help the Soviets stop them. Written by KC Hunt <khunt@eng.morgan.edu>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis

Taglines:

It will have you sitting on the brink of eternity! See more »

Genres:

Drama | Thriller

Certificate:

Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

1965 (UK) See more »

Also Known As:

Fail Safe See more »

Filming Locations:

USA See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA)

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

The conversation in the rec room about automated aircraft has come true and is so common that they can be purchased for pocket change today. It is worth noting that the B-58 Hustlers in this film (the stand-ins for the "Vindicator" bombers) were the first fly-by-wire planes in military service, this meaning that the controls were electronic and were not directly connected to the hydraulic systems that managed the control surfaces or throttles. A notoriously difficult plane to maintain, it also had one odd feature. The military had the planes upgraded with remotely controlled machine guns, but if the plane was at full speed when fired (faster than a bullet), the bullets actually followed in the direction the plane, but at a slower speed. See more »

Goofs

The end credits list General Black's wife as Betty, but in the film he addresses her as Katie and in a radio conversation, the President asks Black, "Are Kathryn and the kids in New York?" See more »

Quotes

Defense Secretary Swenson: The President says he may have to order our fighters to shoot down Group Six. He wants our opinion.
Prof. Groeteschele: I oppose it, sir, on the grounds that it's premature. Our planes have not yet reached Soviet territory, they're still hundreds of miles away.
Brigadier General Warren A. Black: We've got to do it, and fast! Right now before it's too late!
Gen. Stark: It might be too late anyway. Those fighters swung away from the bombers when they got the all-clear signal, they've been flying in opposite directions.
See more »

Crazy Credits

The sounds of a bullfight crowd is heard in reference to Black's matador dream. Then, the squeal of the Russian ambassador's melted phone which the President stated would be heard when New York City was bombed. See more »

Connections

Referenced in The Governor & J.J.: File Safe (1970) See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

" Maybe It IS Hell ... "
24 November 1999 | by stryker-5See all my reviews

It is 1964 and the Cold War is raging. If the US military's Strategic Command spots any unidentified object in the skies, American nuclear bombers are ordered to a series of 'Fail-Safe' points. Unless they receive the stand-down command, the aircraft will head for target cities in the Soviet Union. Once beyond the Fail-Safe Point, and locked onto their targets, the bombers cannot be recalled. Crews are trained to disregard all signals, whether they be commands or entreaties, and continue on their mission. After all, any plea to turn back may be soviet subterfuge. This perverse logic of nuclear warfare, as one pilot puts it, "eliminates the personal factor".

The film conjectures what might happen if the system buckles. Suppose a technical mishap allows a bomber group to stray beyond Fail-Safe. Would the soviets accept the anguished apologies of an American president? Or would they regard it as a treacherous trick? Should human beings place everything they hold dear at the mercy of electronic systems? What if the rationale of nuclear strategy parts company with human logic?

Made less than two years after the Cuba Missile Crisis, "Fail-Safe" is clearly very heavily affected by that trauma and what it revealed to us all. We see a decent American President in the bizarre context of a nuclear showdown. Cut off from the society he knows and understands, the president is locked deep in some claustrophobic bunker, his only real human contact being the 'enemy' soviet premier. The American is wise and morally sound, and equal to the emergency. His Russian counterpart is emotional and unpredictable, but rises above his indoctrination to attain real dignity when the chips are down. Another of the Cold War insanities is played out - these two foes will spend the last hours of life on Planet Earth locked together psychologically, far from their loved ones.

Henry Fonda is first-class as the president. He brings authority and dignity to the part, exuding Ivy League self-assurance. Larry Hagman plays Buck, the translator from Russian into English, who spends the crisis in the bunker at the president's side. A moment's thought would convince any intelligent viewer that huge liberties are being taken with the truth. In reality, the president would have a team of advisers around him throughout (as indeed Kennedy did during October 1962). There would be phalanxes of interpreters listening in, to insure against even the tiniest mistranslation, and whole companies of psychologists to gauge every nuance of the Russian leader's mood. However, for clarity and dramatic power, the film has the president relying solely on the nervous young Buck. Simultaneous translation is a good dramatic device, because it avoids the distraction of subtitles or the absurdity of a Russian leader speaking fluent English.

Walter Matthau, against type, plays a heartless nuclear expert. Professor Groeteschieler advises the Pentagon top brass on nuclear strategy. He is a ruthless cynic who represents the Barry Goldwater end of the spectrum, and Matthau acts the part consummately well.

Sidney Lumet is one of the great directors, and his stylistic signature is apparent all through this fine film. From the very start, our peace of mind is stripped from us. We see a bull dying in the bullring, and the film's title is flashed up almost subliminally. These broken, discordant images place us immediately in a world of troubled dreams where no comfort is to be had. The American pilots look more like robots than men, in their heavy facemasks which amplify their breathing - or is it fear which creates that rasping edge to their inhalations? When the order to proceed beyond Fail-Safe flashes up in the cockpit, the pilots look at it in motionless silence, their very stillness conveying the tragedy in all its emotional power.

In "Twelve Angry Men" Lumet cast Henry Fonda as the voice of America's liberal conscience beset by the darker forces of the human psyche. Part at least of that film's artistic success is attributable to Lumet's skilful use of lenses in order to flatten the image and intensify the claustrophobia of the jury room. Here, the director employs similar visual techniques to heighten the dramatic experience. With his director of photography, Gerald Hirschfield, he employs chiaroscuro lighting and extreme close-up to amplify the tension of the final minutes, and even shoots Fonda through a fish-eye lens to impart a sense of psychological dislocation.

By a process that is itself logical, nuclear confrontation brings us to insane conclusions. Once both sides comprehend what is happening, they co-operate fully, sharing military secrets, as the humans unite against their mortal enemy, The Bomb. General Bogan (Frank Overton), America's Cold Warrior, is distraught when the Russian missiles fail to destroy American aircraft. Finally, we have the absurdity of an American bomber circling over New York, preparing to destroy five million American lives at the president's command. Life must go on, so plans are drawn up to rescue not people, but the commercial records of American companies from the debris of the metropolis.

Colonel Black (Dan O'Herlihy) is the keeper of the liberal flame. By a cruel irony, he becomes Death itself, and his tragedy is the tragedy of progressive thought. The 'hotline', established post-Cuba, is used very effectively in this film. Shot in exaggerated perspective, the phoneset dwarfs the president, symbolising the way in which the technological behemoth has swamped human decency. In a grimly powerful coup de cinema, the president hears his ambassador's phone melting and knows that the worst has happened. "No human being did wrong," says the Russian premier, as disaster darkens the earth. The American leader counters with, "We let our machines get out of hand." And there, in a nutshell, is the moral of the film.


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