Released in the same year as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe suffered in comparison with the similarly-themed and more famous film, which had been released first. This is a shame, because it is an excellent political thriller.
Sidney Lumet created an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, with the majority of scenes taking place in either small, windowless and sparsely furnished rooms within the White House and Pentagon, SAC Command Center dominated by the screen upon which the drama in the sky is unfolding, and aboard the cockpit of Air Force bomber. There is no music throughout the entire movie further underscoring the sparseness of the film's atmosphere. The conversations between the President of the United States and the Soviet premier are tense and believable, an effect achieved largely through the use of Larry Hagman as an interpreter rather than having the two leaders speaking directly to each other.
As time passes, and the stakes grow higher, the tension is cranked up to unbearable heights until Henry Fonda, the US President, is forced to make a horrific decision in order to assuage Soviet suspicions.
The cast is uniformly excellent from top to bottom. In the White House bunker, Henry Fonda as the President gives one of those leading man portrayals for which he was known. He brings just the right blend of authority and humanity to the role. Larry Hagman looks startlingly young and trim as the President's Russian language interpreter, and almost awestruck at the part he must play in the unfolding drama. His mannerisms, such as the blink of his eyes, are very much in evidence as his way of communicating to the President what the Soviet Party Chairman is saying and thinking.
In Pentagon War Room, Walter Matthau as a political scientist the is a dark individual with a cold analytical streak that is soon unmasked to reveal a streak of fanaticism. Counterbalancing him is Dan O'Herlihy as Colonel Black, the voice of reason throughout. More than that, though, the Black character is a framing device for the entire film. It is his recurring nightmare that opens the film and it is the reality of that nightmare that ends it. O'Herlihy's work in Fail-Safe is among the finest of his 50-year film and television acting career. At SAC headquarters in Omaha, both Frank Overton and Fritz Weaver are memorable as senior air force officials dealing with the crisis, and in Anchorage, familiar Ed Binns is effective as the pilot of the lead aircraft.
Beyond the cast, the most striking aspect of the film is the atmosphere it creates. The film is in black and white; it's lit from above or the sides creating a stark and sparse environment. This look and feel is uniformly maintained throughout the duration of the film as well as at all its locations. In fact, there is much about Fail Safe that is suggestive of film noir, from the visual style to the mental distress of the principal characters.
The movie is also packed with numerous memorable scenes: the opening bullfight; the US control room staff cheering spontaneously when one of their own planes is destroyed by a Soviet fighter plane; the poignant conversation between General Bogan and his Soviet counterpart as they realize all is lost; Matthau's clinical recommendation that, in the event of a nuclear strike, search efforts should be focused on retrieving corporation records instead of recovering the dead and dying; the superb climax that captures perfectly the sudden senseless obliteration of a city and its people, and irrefutably proves that multi-million dollar special effects aren't required to make a powerful, deeply affecting, impact on the view
Sidney Lumet made his classic films such as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network and The Verdict work so well because of those films' focus on characters and a claustrophobic setting. For Fail-Safe, he employed the same kind of method. Shot in very dark black-and-white, with cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld closing in on the sweaty faces of lead actors, Lumet creates a very tense film that could easily be turned into a play. There's no music score and the movie is set in just a few locations, including the Strategic Air Command in Omaha and a very sparsely decorated room where the President's trying to convince the Soviet Premier (aided by Larry Hagman's bright, young interpreter) that Moscow is about to be annihilated - but not as part of a general U.S. attack on Russia. Watching Fonda and Hagman play this high-stakes game is fascinating. Other parts of the film also underscore a touching willingness among American and Russian military leaders to cooperate in the attempts to stop the bombers from reaching their target; less successful is the simple psychology behind Colonel Cascio's (Fritz Weaver) breakdown in the latter half of the film. Strong performances by the cast, including Walter Matthau in an early feature film appearance as Professor Groeteschele, the academic who disperses hard-line advice with a chilling enthusiasm on why attacking the Soviets first is a good idea.
By dint of its basic plausibility, its suspenseful script, and the uniform excellence of its cast, it is the epitome of cold war films, on par with its contemporaries dealing with the same subject: Dr. Strangelove and The Bedford Incident.