Fail Safe: Ten Things To Know About The Movie

Fail Safe Movie Poster

Here are 10 trivia facts about Fail Safe from 1964, which originally appeared on our Facebook page. There are lots of pieces of behind-the-scenes information about this movie.  Please feel free to comment and add more trivia we might have missed.

1. This movie is based on a popular novel.

Fail Safe, published in 1962 was written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.  The best-seller became a hit movie in 1964 and then 16 years later, in 2000, Fail Safe was a TV movie, this time filmed live on CBS, retaining the original black and white cinematography for its broadcast.  Both movies stuck to the original premise of the novel — the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.

The title gets its meaning when something has been branded “fail safe” in the world of engineering.  It refers to a complex system has been carefully designed to account for every conceivable way things can malfunction within it and to address those glitches in a manner that does not exacerbate the problem.  The title is actually steeped in irony, given the fact that the “best laid plans of mice and men” can drive the world towards a nuclear holocaust.

2. This movie was the film debut for three future stars.

Dom Deluise, Dana Elcar and Fritz Weaver all made their first big screen appearances in Fail Safe. Elcar made 15 appearances on various TV shows including Guiding Light (1962) before Fail Safe and continued to be popular, known best for his role in MacGuyver.

Fritz Weaver was a solid TV performer appearing in just about every omnibus television offering starting as early as 1957 and appeared in 130 roles, including appearances into the 2000s in Law and Order.

Deluise successfully appeared in front of cameras more than 100 times after his rare serious role in Fail Safe but previous to his film debut in 1964, he appeared in only one TV show, ten years earlier.

3. All of the women in this movie have minor roles.

Five women have speaking parts in Fail Safe but none of their roles keep these actresses on screen for very long.  Although intentional in 1964, had the movie been made 40 years later, it might possibly be done differently.

4. One of the roles was played by a star of two different hit TV series.

Under Lumet’s direction, Larry Hagman delivered one of the most underrated performances of 1964.  Although Hagman has been in many TV series, he is best known for his role as Major Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie and as J.R. Ewing in Dallas, prompting the TV-watching public to spend the entire summer of 1980 guessing “who shot J.R.?”

5. The theme of this movie portrays a potential real event.

The serious issue of a nuclear holocaust was almost diminished when it fell under the shadow of another movie the same year.  Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb were both released by Columbia Pictures in 1964.  At the insistance of Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove was released first. By the time Fail Safe hit theaters nine months later, even though it was already receiving stellar critical acclaim, the viewing public kept away because they considered it inadvertently humorous due to the earlier film.  It was a hard sell to take it seriously after seeing Peter Sellers in a similar movie and it’s been said that Henry Fonda admitted that had he seen Dr. Strangelove before Fail Safe, he would have laughed also — and would never have consented to make the movie.

6. Lots of stock footage was used in making this film.

Except for one scene, all views of US Air Force Vindicator bombers are actually the same plane from stock footage, the Convair B-58 Hustler, which was used when it became clear the US Department of Defense wouldn’t be helping with the filming of the movie.  The one scene where a different plane was used is during the Moscow attack — it was the North American F-86 Sabre Jet.

7. The military is involved but this is not considered a war movie.

Often categorized as a drama or thriller, Fail Safe, if anything, is looked upon as a strong anti-war movie.  Lumet’s masterpiece has been mentioned alongside other anti-war classics All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths of Glory.

8. There is no music in this film.

No music is heard throughout the film and no soundtrack was recorded.

Fail Safe was directed by Sidney Lumet

9. The famed director of this film has never won an Oscar.

Having made over 40 movies, many shot in New York, master craftsman Sidney Lumet can rub shoulders with the best of Hollywood’s directors but doesn’t have a “Best Director” Oscar on his shelf, although he was honored for his consistently excellent body of work.  In 2005, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors presented Lumet an honorary Oscar for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.”

His first feature film, 12 Angry Men earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture; Serpico, two nominations; Murder on the Orient Express, six nominations including Ingrid Bergman’s third Oscar; Dog Day Afternoon earned six nominations including Best Picture and did win for Best Screenplay; Network had ten nominations and won Oscars for four of its stars – and was again nominated for Best Picture; another Best Picture nod was among the five well-deserved nominations for The Verdict — in all, he directed 17 actors in Oscar-nominated roles, many of whom did win.

10. A major city is destroyed in the movie.

All of the advance promos for Fail Safe let it be known the film is about the destruction of Moscow, coming as no surprise in this tense drama… however moviegoers discovered this movie is filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Henry Fonda playing the US President during the Cold War years, faced with the accidental bombing of Moscow, feels he has no recourse but to convince the Russian Premier of his good faith by offering to bomb an American city in an effort to keep the ecalation of nuclear war in check, even against the disapproval of his commanding generals.  The dire decision at the film’s ending causes this unequalled dilemma to make Fail Safe a most unforgettable film.

Now take a look at some scenes from Fail Safe in the theatrical trailer from 1964:

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