Epic Fail Safe

You know what they say: “When a fail-safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail-safe.”

It was a natural for Bologna to programme this one in the season Henry Fonda for President — that most presidential actor played the top man or else a potential top man in a whole programme’s worth of films, but the other beautiful connection is between this and DAISY KENYON for the appearance of the BIG TELEPHONE.

A nuclear threat — bombers accidentally sent towards Moscow, the War Room desperately tried to call them back. We’ve had the freak technical fault, but who will crack under the strain, junky Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman who didn’t take good care of his nukes in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, hawkish wingnut Walter Matthau (EXCEPTIONALLY good) or Dan O’Herlihy who is plagued by a Recurring Matador Dream?

(The RMD is the only example I can think of where a filmmaker — Sidney Lumet — makes CREATIVE USE of matte line, a shimmering outline carving O’Herlihy out from the throng, and allowing him to be differently lit — from screen left rather than right — and exposed. See also the weird device where the B-52s B-58s are shown in negative. Peculiar, but the great Ralph Rosenblum’s cutting is so sharp you barely have time to register the strangeness.)

The scene-for-scene parallels with DR. STRANGELOVE are striking, as I knew they would be, but they’re MORE striking than I expected — I hadn’t known that the author of the novel Red Alert, which STRANGELOVE is based on, sued the author of the novel Fail Safe, for plagiarism — I heard about that at this excellent podcast. It is amazing to see a beat-for-beat repetition until the ending, which takes things in a radically new direction.

Lumet’s war room is perhaps a little too science-fictional, and too much like a bing hall at the same time, but the wide lens filming and dramatic cutting, each angle-shift callibrated for dramatic effect. It makes one conscious of how sloppy most mise-en-scene and montage are. As in WE MUST LIVE, there were simple cuts to familiar faces that achieved intentional, intelligent JOLTS.

You can’t talk about Lumet having a tragedy — he loved making films and he was able to make them for his whole life and his last two are highlights — but if he had a tragedy it would be that he thought of himself as a journeyman who could turn his hand to anything, when in fact he was always best with a socially-relevant thriller, often with a New York element (though THE HILL among others shows his ability to travel well).

FAIL SAFE stars Robinson Crusoe; Abraham Lincoln; Senator Long; Sheriff Heck Tate; Juror 6; Professor Biesenthal; Gov. Fred Picker; Dr. Robert MacPhail; Boss Hogg / Thaddeus B. Hogg / Abraham Lincoln Hogg; and Buddy Bizarre.

13 Responses to “Epic Fail Safe”

  1. Have you seen the Clooney remake? I felt it was much more lifeless.

  2. I haven’t. That went out live, right? There’s all sorts of ways in which doing it live could make it more tense (genuinely terrified actors) or less tense (restricted camerawork, everybody being careful)…

  3. chris schneider Says:

    Another Big Phone: the one in the DIAL M FOR MURDER movie.

  4. Mark E Fuller Says:

    A Pedant Writes. B58s, not B52s. Those US fighters would have caught up with B52s…..

  5. mikeclelland Says:

    I worked doing TV commercials in the 80s in NYC. And I did cue cards for Fritz Weaver! He was a delight of a man!

    Say Hi to Momo.

  6. If Hitchcock’s giant finger broke down he could always dial his giant phone with one of Powell’s massive pencils from Peeping Tom.

    Momo says Hi back, or anyway sort of Mgawowwrr.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    A Big Phone figures significantly in Bava’s “I Tre Volti Della Paura”

  8. Gloriously stupid.

    I can’t remember if Bava pulls any perspective tricks with his phone, but I do recall suspecting that he was influenced by/spoofing Rossellini’s Amor with Magnani spending a whole episode freaking out on the telephone.

  9. Joan Crawford gets a Big Phone in Aldrich’s “Autumn Leaves” (1956), when she finally decides to commit loony husband Cliff Robertson.

  10. The two of them have Big Phone History.

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Rossellini you refer to, “Amore” I a two part film with Magnani. The first part “The Miracle” was the subject of a famous court case in New York when the Catholic church tried to have it censored It’s about a peasant seduced by a passing stranger (played by Federico Fellini of all people) who believes she has been impregnated with the second coming of Christ.. The second part is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine” in which a woman makes a desperate phone call to the lover who has just left her, begging him to come back. Pedro Almodovar has just remade it with Tilda Swinton.

  12. That’ll be an interesting departure for La Swinton — but then, almost everything she does is a departure. Can one depart from a career composed of departures?

    I think Fellini is mistaken for one of the saints, so it’s marginally less blasphemous, but Cardinal Spellman got very excited about it anyway, suggesting it be advertised with the slogan “Women FURTHER defamed by Roberto Rossellini.”

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