Fail Safe: the film that got overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove

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In the run up to the release of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb legal action was taken to try to protect the film from another one of similar content being released first. The claim of plagiarism rested on the similarities between the novels that each was based on, as both books featured the fallout from US bombers heading off to drop nuclear weapons on Russia during the Cold War despite having received no such order from the US President.

Fail-Safe - DVD coverThe novels themselves – Red Alert (also called Two Hours to Doom) and the eponymous Fail-Safe – are of similar merit. But when it comes to the movies, Fail-Safe had the misfortune to be up against the genius of Dr. Strangelove. Even if the legal action delaying Fail-Safe until after Dr. Strangelove‘s appearance had failed, Dr. Strangelove would have ended up being the famous one.

Yet it’s so brilliant that the fact that Fail-Safe isn’t in its league isn’t that much of a criticism. It’s still a good thriller – just not a brilliant, genre-setting one.

Fail-Safe is based on the novel by the now sadly mostly forgotten but at the time famous public intellectual Eugene Burdick and by Harvey Wheeler.

Directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, not to mention a young Larry Hagman in a role that shows he had far more acting skill that simply the bombastic JR of his later career, the black and white thriller is well directed with a taut plot. There is a steady ratcheting up of tension as the US President tries to stop the erroneous sending of bombers to hit Moscow kicking off nuclear armageddon.

The film sticks perhaps a little too closely to the original book, because the condensed nature of the plot makes the dream of a bull fight that starts off the film rather odd and out of place. In the book, where there is greater space to develop the characters, the dream makes more sense.

Even so, the film is great, and the DVD extras are well worth a watch too, especially the mini-documentary about Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove. Fail-Safe was also remade more recently by George Clooney, and hence his appearance in the documentary.

If you like this, you might also be interested in the book LeMay by Barrett Tillman as the real life figure of Chester LeMay was the role model for General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and also has strong echoes in the characters in Fail-Safe.

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Buy Fail-Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet, here.


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