Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The other was Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. The two movies are quite different in tone, Dr. Strangelove being a black comedy while Fail-Safe is (or tries to be) a tense political thriller. The similarities in plot are however quite extraordinary. In fact the plots are so similar that Kubrick and Columbia Pictures sued for plagiarism. Having now seen both films more or less back-to-back I can well understand why Kubrick and Columbia felt justified in taking legal action.
The case was settled out of court and the terms of the settlement were that Columbia should buy Fail-Safe. They did so, and delayed the release until well after Dr. Strangelove opened. When Fail-Safe finally came out it bombed at the box office and fans of the film tend to blame this on the delayed release. In fact Columbia acted very sensibly. Dr. Strangelove was a great movie with the potential to be a huge hit (which it was). Fail-Safe is clunky and dull and was never going to set the box-office alight.
Also present in the War Room is political scientist Dr Groeteschele (based on real-life political scientist Herman Kahn and played by Walter Matthau). Dr Groeteschele sees this as a wonderful opportunity. He advises the President to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. OK, he calculates that at least sixty million Americans will die but that’s a small price to pay for saving the American way of life from the evils of communism. (Groeteschele appears in an odd prologue scene being picked up at a party by a woman who seems to have a nuclear war fetish).
The main protagonists all play much the same role that their equivalents play in Kubrick’s film. Dr Groeteschele is as mad in his own way as Dr Strangelove. The President is well-meaning. The military chiefs are divided.
Although Fail-Safe is played as a straight thriller rather than a comedy it’s actually a lot less tense and exciting than Dr. Strangelove.
Fail-Safe was based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler while Kubrick’s movie was based on an earlier novel by Peter George. The basic plot outline is almost identical.
Fail-Safe is not so much a movie as a political lecture - strident, dreary and clumsy. It demonstrates that Kubrick’s decision to play the same material as comedy was a very very shrewd move. The political subtext in Kubrick’s production is made much more palatable and is in any case more nuanced.
Henry Fonda is an actor I’ve never liked. In this movie he just seems to be playing Henry Fonda. Walter Matthau is ludicrously miscast and his performance is the final disaster that sinks the film. The members of the supporting cast give rather stagey performances. Look out for Larry Hagman in a fairly important role as the President’s interpreter (and he’s one of the better actors in the film).
Fail-Safe doesn’t really develop the necessary level of nail-biting suspense. The story has potential but Lumet doesn’t capitalise on it. The whole affair is too self-righteous. I had the same response to this one as I’ve had to most of Lumet’s films. He often starts out with an idea that seems to have potential but he doesn’t appear to know what to do with the idea. The result, more often than not, comes across as thematically incoherent.
If you’re a student of the Cold War or a fan of Cold War movies then Fail-Safe might be worth a look if only for the contrast it makes with Kubrick’s version. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother too much tracking this one down.