Brigadier General Warren Black (Dan O'Herlihy) is having that nightmare again, the one with the bullfight. He wakes up in a cold sweat, not sure if the dream is a portent or simply something to be dismissed as job-related stress, but gets up and checks on his children regardless. It is 5.30am, and at the same time Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) is holding forth at the end of a party on the subject he is an advisor to the United States government about: the possibility of nuclear war and which side would survive. Could it happen? Everyone in the world is about to get a terrible answer to that question...
When Stanley Kubrick found out that Columbia, the studio which was backing his nuclear armageddon comedy Dr Strangelove, was also making a far more serious version of the same subject, he was decidedly unhappy. So unhappy that this film, Fail-Safe, was released some months after his hit and was given far less of a publicity push than it should have been. However, the film endured as a cult item among those who had been impressed by its grave and sober tone, and an ending that was uncompromising and regretful while still retaining an anger at the powers that be which had brought the world to such an unthinkable decision.
Yet how unthinkable was it? Fail-Safe was produced just a couple of short years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the thoughts of possible nuclear war had not gone away in the interim, neither would they go away - they're still a worry today in some form or another. Here the set up is simplicity itself: there is an unidentified object that turns up on the radar of the United States' early warning system which is eventually recognised as a commercial plane and not an enemy (that is, Soviet) one. Unfortunately, the American bombers have reached the "fail-safe" points, and if they don't receive the orders to stand down, they will continue on their path - and bomb their targets.
Fair enough, as usual (this is not an irregular occurence) the bombers are supplied with their orders, but this time something goes wrong. An equipment malfunction in the "War Room" means one group of planes don't get their signal that all is well, and they continue on a course that will lead them to Moscow. To make matters worse, the pilots have been instructed not to regard any subsequent radio messages as genuine because the Soviets might be deceiving them if this is a real combat situation, so when they do manage to get through to them, even a desperate message from the President himself (Henry Fonda) is not going to deter them.
Although the film ends with a disclaimer from the Air Force and Department of Defense that there was now way such a foul up could actually happen, it's a mark of Walter Bernstein's script, adapting Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's novel, that the drama is never less than convincing. Add to that director Sidney Lumet's expert handling of a fine cast and the stage is set for tension, with more closeups of perspiring faces than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect is that certain hawkish characters believe this is the perfect opportunity to launch a full scale attack on the Soviets, never mind that a brutal retaliation would result: all they can see is the possibility of gaining the upper hand. For this reason Fail-Safe comes across an earnest, humourless but remarkably resentful piece of work, utterly untrusting of the men who have taken such power into their hands and cannot be relied upon to handle it capably, never mind responsibly. There is no music.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.