Some classify this movie as a Cold War thriller, but its scope is wider. "Fail-Safe" concerns itself with the horror of technology gone haywire. Thus, it has much in common with all Frankenstein and all zombie movies, as well as with "Ex Machina," "War Games," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "Robocop."
How much of "Fail-Safe" is Hollywood fantasy? In 1964 were there really attack plans that after a minimal amount of time had absolutely no abort option? If so, this one-man-jury finds the architects of such technology guilty of the ultimate war crime: Stupidity in the First Degree.
Alfred Hitchcock - "Master of Suspense"
Robert Wise - "Master of Craft"
Stanley Kubrick - "Master of Perfection"
Sidney Lumet - "Master of Endings"
Why have I never heard of this gripping thriller until now? Probably because of the lack of patriotism of certain plot-points.
*SPOILER* The unlikelihood of one major, reprehensible decision by the president of the U.S. is actually the reason I couldn't give the film a full 5 stars despite how amazing the rest of the movie was.
The difference ofcurse being that 'Dr.Stangelove' is a political satire and 'Fail-Safe' is a more serious thriller, they are both expertly executed on their own terms.
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 created this sense of claustrophobia, by shooting the majority of scenes 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 musical score throughout the 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 until 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. His mannerisms, such as the blink of his eyes, are very much in evidence as his way of conveying 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 military fanaticism. Counterbalancing him is Dan O'Herlihy as Colonel Black, the voice of reason throughout. 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, Ed Binns is effective as the pilot of the lead bomber.
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 the film noir genre, from the visual style to the mental distress of the principal characters.
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.