Blu-ray Review: FAIL SAFE: Everything Old is New Again
In 1964, Fail Safe was released. It was directed by the very influential and prolific director Sidney Lumet, an American master of cinema and television, who helmed films such as Network, 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, to name a few.
Lumet was also well-known for getting excellent performances out of his actors, and Fail Safe is no different. The war room drama stars Dan O'Herlihy (RoboCop, Halloween III), Henry Fonda (The Fugitive, The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men), Walter Matthau (Grumpy Old Men, The Odd Couple, Charade) and many other players with varying roles of weight.
Some tidbits: Fail Safe was adapted from a novel of the same title by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. (Originally, the story was published in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis via installments in "The Saturday Evening Post."
Born from the terrors and propaganda of the Cold War, Fail Safe was also a lingering product of the McCarthy Era (though it was released officially after this timeframe), during which many Americans were terrorized and lost careers due to reckless witch hunts and the Second Red Scare. Fail Safe screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, Annie Hall) was one of the victims of the resulting HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and their unfounded Communist accusations, and was blacklisted along many others in Hollywood. One way of continuing to work under these conditions was under an alias and sympathetic producers, which was how Bernstein and many others were able to survive.
It's not much of a stretch to say that in these times, such terrible events (and propaganda) are still possible. It seems like everyday in America we ask ourselves, "how much worse can it get?" and "is this really happening?" And yet, here we are --- everything old is new again.
Now to the plot, and to which I'll say as little as possible. An accident causes American forces to think we're being lead into World War III, and a series of triggering events escalates things into a chilling Mexican standoff and absolutely dire consequences.
Lumet was able to pull off such a story with very limited resources and budget through the strength of the actors' performances, use of close ups, an animated war room screen, and clever writing. In fact, the government did not want this film made, and even went so far as to have Hollywood prop houses refuse to rent to the production. You'll learn about this story and others in the featurette on the Criterion disc.
Speaking of which, these are the bonus features:
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2000 featuring director Sidney Lumet
- New interview with film critic J. Hoberman on 1960s nuclear paranoia and Cold War films
- “Fail Safe” Revisited, a short documentary from 2000 including interviews with Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actor Dan O’Herlihy
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri
- New cover by Adam Maida
Strangely, the instructions on the screen to listen to Lumet's commentary were to "press audio" on my remote control. Well, I have a strange new SmartCast TV or something, and there was no such basic option. It might as well be a robot as far as I'm concerned, because I'm not a techie in any sense. I didn't bother trying to figure it out yet. Hopefully, you can figure that out if you'd like to watch the film with Lumet speaking.
The new 4K digital restoration looks fantastic, and the sound is also quite good; Criterion has done excellent work, once again.
If you'd like to learn more and add Fail Safe to your home Blu-ray collection, head over to Criterion here.
- Sidney Lumet
- Walter Bernstein (screenplay)
- Eugene Burdick (from the novel by)
- Harvey Wheeler (from the novel by)
- Dan O'Herlihy
- Walter Matthau
- Frank Overton
- Edward Binns