Fail Safe (1964)

111 mins | Drama | 1964

Director:

Sidney Lumet

Producer:

Max E. Youngstein

Cinematographer:

Gerald Hirschfeld

Editor:

Ralph Rosenblum

Production Designer:

Albert Brenner

Production Company:

Columbia Pictures
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HISTORY

On 9 Jan 1963, LAT announced that Max E. Youngstein’s newly formed production company, Entertainment Corporation of America (ECA), paid $500,000 for the motion picture rights to Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s 1962 bestseller, Fail-Safe, which depicted the fallout of the U.S. government accidentally initiating a nuclear war. Around this time, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had begun filming a satirical take on the same subject: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, see entry), based on the Peter George novel, Red Alert (1959). Both projects were to be distributed by Columbia Pictures. The 12 Feb 1963 DV reported that George filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Burdick, Wheeler, their publishers, and ECA, alleging that the similarities between the source materials created “unfair competition” that would damage the commercial value of Dr. Strangelove. According to a 27 Mar 1963 Var article, the dispute prompted ECA’s financier, Ace Film, to withdraw further investment in Fail Safe. Although a 21 Mar 1963 LAT item claimed production had been canceled, ECA resolved to seek support elsewhere, as they had already spent $210,000 on development costs and established offices in New York City. Up to this point, funds had been provided by ECA’s parent corporation, Television Industries. The following month, the 6 Apr 1963 NYT announced that the case was settled out of court, but resulted in the total dissolution of ECA, with Columbia assuming all remaining production duties.
       Principal photography began 15 Apr 1964 in New York City. Significant measures were taken to ensure the picture was produced ... More Less

On 9 Jan 1963, LAT announced that Max E. Youngstein’s newly formed production company, Entertainment Corporation of America (ECA), paid $500,000 for the motion picture rights to Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s 1962 bestseller, Fail-Safe, which depicted the fallout of the U.S. government accidentally initiating a nuclear war. Around this time, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had begun filming a satirical take on the same subject: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, see entry), based on the Peter George novel, Red Alert (1959). Both projects were to be distributed by Columbia Pictures. The 12 Feb 1963 DV reported that George filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Burdick, Wheeler, their publishers, and ECA, alleging that the similarities between the source materials created “unfair competition” that would damage the commercial value of Dr. Strangelove. According to a 27 Mar 1963 Var article, the dispute prompted ECA’s financier, Ace Film, to withdraw further investment in Fail Safe. Although a 21 Mar 1963 LAT item claimed production had been canceled, ECA resolved to seek support elsewhere, as they had already spent $210,000 on development costs and established offices in New York City. Up to this point, funds had been provided by ECA’s parent corporation, Television Industries. The following month, the 6 Apr 1963 NYT announced that the case was settled out of court, but resulted in the total dissolution of ECA, with Columbia assuming all remaining production duties.
       Principal photography began 15 Apr 1964 in New York City. Significant measures were taken to ensure the picture was produced both as quickly and cheaply as possible, with the 28 Apr 1964 DV reporting a planned budget of less than $1.2 million. According to a 16 Jul 1963 LAT article, filmmakers received no cooperation from the Pentagon or U.S. Armed Forces, and interiors of the Pentagon and Strategic Air Command base were replicated on sound stages of the Fox Movietone Studios on 10th Avenue. While the “President” and “General Black” only communicate via intercom, stars Henry Fonda and Dan O’Herlihy spent two weeks rehearsing their dialogue “as if [they] were in a Broadway show,” allowing them to become familiar with the script. They then filmed their scenes separately, which “cut shooting time in half.” The 28 Apr 1963 NYT stated that Lumet spent a week on location at LaGuardia airport, where production utilized the interiors of training aircraft for the scenes set inside a bomber plane. Despite earlier reports of a four-to-six-week shooting schedule, it was not until 23 Aug 1963 that DV announced that production had “recently” been completed.
       Although the release dates of several politically themed films were affected by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Nov 1963, Columbia did not plan to open Fail Safe until the following autumn. According to the 27 Sep 1964 NYT, the world premiere took place mid-Sep 1964, as part of the second annual New York Film Festival, followed by a citywide engagement on 7 Oct 1964. An 11 Nov 1964 LAT news item reported that Fail Safe opened that day in twenty-eight theaters in Los Angeles, CA.
       Reviews were generally positive, but its late release invited several comparisons to Dr. Strangelove, which opened eight months earlier. NYT critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the two films presented “diametrically opposing estimations of the capacity of man,” with Fail Safe offering the less cynical perspective and a “more realistic premise.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
12 Feb 1963
p. 4.
Daily Variety
27 Mar 1963
p. 3.
Daily Variety
19 Apr 1963
p. 8.
Daily Variety
23 Aug 1963
p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
9 Jan 1963
Section D, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
21 Mar 1963
Section C, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times
12 Apr 1963
Section C, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times
16 Jun 1963
Section D, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times
12 Dec 1963
Section C, p. 29.
Los Angeles Times
11 Nov 1964
Section D, p. 13.
New York Times
16 Feb 1963
p. 7.
New York Times
6 Apr 1963
p. 9.
New York Times
28 Apr 1963
p. 131.
New York Times
30 Nov 1963
p. 17.
New York Times
27 Sep 1964
Section X, p. 1.
Variety
27 Mar 1963.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Max E. Youngstein-Sidney Lumet Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
SOUND
Sd mix
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec & anim eff
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Chief elec
Chief grip
Main titles
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler (New York, 1962).
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Fail-Safe
Release Date:
1964
Premiere Information:
New York Film Festival premiere: mid-September 1964
New York opening: 7 October 1964
Los Angeles opening: 11 November 1964
Production Date:
15 April--late summer 1963
Copyright Claimant:
Columbia Pictures
Copyright Date:
31 December 1963
Copyright Number:
LP29279
Duration(in mins):
111
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

An emergency arises and bombers from Strategic Air Command head for the fail-safe point, but they are called back when the situation is clarified. Due to a fault in the electronic system, however, one wing of bombers passes the fail-safe point and heads for Moscow. The President and the Pentagon War Room are informed, and the President listens to the Pentagon discuss the emergency. Groeteschele, a civilian adviser, recommends that the full power of the United States be unleashed against the Soviet Union, but General Black insists that all steps must be taken to avoid world holocaust. The President, in accordance with Black's recommendation, orders the planes shot down and uses the hot line to inform the Russian leader, who is aware of the approaching bombers, that the attack is a mistake. In an effort to help destroy the deadly planes, the President orders General Bogan to release top-secret information to the Russians. One plane, piloted by Colonel Grady, manages to get through. Despite radio orders from the President to return and the pleadings of his own wife, Grady refuses to alter his course. While the President is talking to the Russian premier on the hot line, Grady releases the bombs over Moscow. To convince the Soviet Union and the rest of the world that the bombing was a gross error, the President orders the atomic destruction of New York City by U.S. ... +


An emergency arises and bombers from Strategic Air Command head for the fail-safe point, but they are called back when the situation is clarified. Due to a fault in the electronic system, however, one wing of bombers passes the fail-safe point and heads for Moscow. The President and the Pentagon War Room are informed, and the President listens to the Pentagon discuss the emergency. Groeteschele, a civilian adviser, recommends that the full power of the United States be unleashed against the Soviet Union, but General Black insists that all steps must be taken to avoid world holocaust. The President, in accordance with Black's recommendation, orders the planes shot down and uses the hot line to inform the Russian leader, who is aware of the approaching bombers, that the attack is a mistake. In an effort to help destroy the deadly planes, the President orders General Bogan to release top-secret information to the Russians. One plane, piloted by Colonel Grady, manages to get through. Despite radio orders from the President to return and the pleadings of his own wife, Grady refuses to alter his course. While the President is talking to the Russian premier on the hot line, Grady releases the bombs over Moscow. To convince the Soviet Union and the rest of the world that the bombing was a gross error, the President orders the atomic destruction of New York City by U.S. planes. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.