Buried Treasures is a column dedicated to things we feel have gone underappreciated, often both critically and commercially. We want to share these wonderful musical and cinematic moments with you. And no, this isn't an April Fool's joke.
Words: Paul Dean
Film: 'Fail-Safe' (1964)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herhily, Walther Matthau, Dom DeLuise
Without doubt one of my most treasured films, made by one of my favourite directors, Sidney Lumet, this is less a film about conflict itself and more one about the decisions made far away from the front lines. 'Fail-Safe' came out at roughly the same time as 'Dr. Strangelove' and critics are going to tell you the latter is the better film. It is, of course, all about personal preference, but I’m going to tell you a little secret, and that little secret is that 'Fail-Safe' is actually superior. Don’t share that with anyone.
You could say they’re two sides of the same coin. Both works are about the efforts to either avert or to mitigate a nuclear war that is about be triggered in error, the stakes gradually rising as lines of communication fail, technology fails and even people fail or, perhaps worse, still strive to succeed. The narratives of both films focus on the decision-makers and those far away from the fight, both geographically and mentally, but unlike 'Strangelove', 'Fail-Safe' is entirely serious. It’s also far more sparse, unadorned, frank and brutal.
Lumet's harsh, acute and very cold depiction of a world on the brink of destruction is played out on bare sets, without music and frequently shot in tight, claustrophobic close-ups. This minimalism casts an unflinching gaze upon the characters in whose hands the fate of the world now rests, so we see every detail of their reactions and responses, recalling the director's 1957 masterpiece, the definitive version of '12 Angry Men'. Politicians are contrasted with soldiers and the very visible, almost naked American characters with their eternally unseen and inscruitable Soviet counterparts. Sprinkled amongst all these groups are the emotional and the emotionless, each person affected quite differently by the unfolding crisis.
Also much like '12 Angry Men', this is basically little more than a play shot on the big screen, as there are relatively few sets and the emphasis is squarely on the outstanding cast and their reactions and responses to the ongoing events. Lumet excels when it comes to getting the best out of actors and 'Fail-Safe' is no exception. This exposure, intimacy and simplicity can generate some truly chilling moments and, at one point, what I think is probably one of the most horrific telephone conversations cinema has ever seen. This film is incredible and does not deserve to remain eclipsed by that oft-namechecked contemporary.