Fail-Safe – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Fail-Safe is currently available on instant Netflix.


WATCH: Fail-Safe (1964) – NR – Not rated

“Director Sidney Lumet transforms the doomsday scenario played for laughs in Dr. Strangelove into a taut thriller. When a computer glitch sends a bomber crew on a suicide mission to Moscow, the U.S. president (Henry Fonda) agonizes over how to stop it. Will Fonda tell the Russians to shoot down the plane? Global thermonuclear war may hinge on his decision.”

“I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?”

“Whats the difference between 60 million dead and a hundred million dead?” – “Forty million”

Fail-Safe shares a remarkable number of resemblances to the film we reviewed yesterday, Dr. Strangelove. They were both released in 1964. Both are directed by celebrated directors and feature wonderful casts.

Both are based on cautionary novels about the possibility of error causing a nuclear catastrophe. The plots are remarkably similar and Kubrick wisely stipulated that his film be released first. Dr. Strangelove had already been delayed as a result of the Kennedy assassination.

While thematically identical, the two films could not be further apart in tone. Where Dr. Strangelove is a droll satire, Fail-Safe is a deadly serious examination of a nuclear issue and cold war politics.

Director Sidney Lumet does a wonderful job with ensemble casts in tense situations. He deals heavily in characterization and his movies are usually very light in physical action. This predisposition suits this topic well.

Lumet uses his 12 Angry Men star Henry Fonda as the President. This is wonderful casting of course coming after decades of Henry Fonda playing American everymen. Fonda is both powerful and sympathetic here in very tense situations.

Walter Matthau is exceptional as an extremely hawkish professor. Even while working on (okay mostly exacerbating) the current crisis, it is clear he is positioning himself for advantage in a future situation. Dan OHerlihy is our nominal hero, a General with a conscience. A young Larry (Dallas) Hagman plays an interpreter caught in the middle.

The stark black and white cinematography works well for the bleak depiction of possible nuclear tragedy. Sidney Lumet avoids any kind of flashiness that might detract from the drama. The movie is, not surprisingly, somewhat heavy-handed.

To show how serious the subject is, there is no music whatsoever during the film. A horrifying twist three quarters of the way in the movie, while somewhat difficult to swallow, delivers quite a punch to the proceedings.

Netflix presents Fail-Safe in HD for those not viewing it on a computer. This is a good slice of Cold War paranoia that had the misfortune of following the brilliant Dr. Strangelove. While worth recommending, it is nowhere near as good as Dr. Strangelove so watch that one first.

People Watch: This movie was quite the launching pad for a number of careers. This is the debut not only of Fritz Weaver but also of comedian Dom Deluise and Dana (MacGyver) Elcar.

Dog Day Afternoon – Al Pacino week

This is Al Pacino week. Dog Day Afternoon is currently available on instant Netflix.

Dog Day Afternoon

WATCH: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – Rated R

“To get money for his gay lover’s sex-change operation, Sonny (Al Pacino) — who’s married with kids — teams up with Sal (John Cazale) to rob a New York bank on a scorching-hot summer day. The stickup goes awry when the press gets wind of the circus sideshow-esque story. Chris Sarandon, Charles Durning and James Broderick co-star in this classic Sidney Lumet-directed film based on an actual event from the 1970s.”

As with all Sidney Lumet films, this is more of a character study than an action or crime film. As mentioned at the opening of the film, this is based on an actual event that occurred on August 22, 1972. The plot follows the incident fairly closely with the major exception that the real bank haul was $213,000.

Lumet does a fantastic job of staging the movie in a naturalistic fashion. He eschews the use of a musical score. There is almost no makeup apart from omnipresent sweat. You can see lots of people eating in the background as the siege drags on. There are no flashy camera tricks, stunts or special effects and extremely little gunfire.

The acting is wonderful – Lumet really knows how to get performances from his actors. Al Pacino is incredible and was nominated for Best Actor. While the vast majority of screen time belongs to Pacino, three of the supporting actors give riveting performances. Chris Sarandon does not smirk at all during the film (a later trademark of his) and gives his best ever performance. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. John Cazale is just as good and deserved a nomination as well. Charles Durning is great but his character arc doesn’t have enough meat to be as good as Sarandon and Cazale.

In a terrible moment of irony, Sal (John Cazale) mentions that the one thing he is afraid of is cancer. John Cazale died three years later of bone cancer at the age of 42. He only made 5 films in his career – most notably assaying the role of Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. All 5 films that he starred in were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. At the time of his death, he was engaged to be married to the divine Meryl Streep.

I very highly recommend this film. The first few minutes, you’ll be thinking “what a bunch of idiots” and not think much of the film. As the situation degenerates, the film quickly ratchets up in intensity. This is definitely one of Al Pacino’s best performances even if Michael Corleone and Tony Montana are more iconic.

People Watch: Look for a young Lance Henriksen briefly as Murphy.