This unnerving procedural thriller painstakingly details an all-too-plausible nightmare scenario in which a mechanical failure jams the United States military’s chain of command and sends the country hurtling toward nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Working from a contemporary best seller, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and director Sidney Lumet wrench harrowing suspense from the doomsday fears of the Cold War era, making the most of a modest budget and limited sets to create an atmosphere of clammy claustrophobia and astronomically high stakes. Starring Henry Fonda as a coolheaded U.S. president and Walter Matthau as a trigger-happy political theorist, Fail Safe is a long-underappreciated alarm bell of a film, sounding an urgent warning about the deadly logic of mutually assured destruction.
The Criterion Collection presents 1964’s other “we’re all screwed” nuclear holocaust film, Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (released after Stanley Kubrick’s more widely known Dr. Strangelove). It is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc, sourced from a new 4K restoration, which in turn was scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Unsurprisingly (considering a majority of Sony’s 4K restorations) this looks unbelievably good. It’s a sharp, clean, and film-like black-and-white presentation. Contrast is perfectly tuned, allowing for bright-but-not-blooming whites and dark-but-not-crushing blacks. There are many wonderful shadowy shots, and detail is always impeccable, outside of archival footage that had to be used out of necessity (this movie really did get the short end of the straw as the features clearly explain).
There are a couple of minor imperfections, primarily in said archival footage, but outside of that I have to say I was stunned at how clean this was. Grain is also rendered brilliantly and looks perfectly natural throughout. The only thing really limiting the image is something that has nothing to do with the restoration and encode, and that’s just the general look of the film: it had an incredibly low budget, with a majority of it being spent on the communications room set, and there are parts that look like it was filmed in someone’s basement (like the president’s bunker). But outside of that it’s an incredible looking image.
The film comes with a monaural soundtrack, presented in lossless 1.0 PCM. Overall it’s a sharp and dynamic presentation. It’s a talky film, light on action, but there are tenser moments where voices raise and tempers flare and there are decent highs and lows because of this. There’s a high-frequency squeal later in the film that also manages to get loud without going overboard. The track has some mild background noise (which is expected) but it rarely sticks out, and damage is never an issue. It’s a simple mono presentation but goes well-and-beyond what I would have expected from the time period of the film.
Criterion goes surprisingly light on this release, reusing features that appeared on the previous DVD edition released by Sony two decades ago. This first includes an audio commentary featuring Lumet, recorded in 2000. It’s a fine enough commentary, with Lumet going into detail about the film’s production and the many issues it faced, from a small budget, to not receiving any help from the American government (who even went out of their way to make things more difficult), and then the misfortune of having made the film at the same time as Kubrick’s own film (with the added bonus of the author’s of that film’s source novel suing the author’s of Fail Safe!) But the production persevered, and Lumet worked the best he could with the budget, creating the film he intended to make. He also talks about his framing and editing, explaining how he wanted the film’s slowly to slowly change, become a bit faster-paced as things in the film started to really go off the rails. There are a number of dead spots and there are times where it feels Lumet is struggling for material to fill the track, but it’s still worthwhile and I’m pleased Criterion carried it over.
Criterion also ports over the 16-minute making-of documentary, which was also created for the Sony DVD in 2000. It’s a pretty standard documentary of its type, covering a number of topics that Lumet covers in the commentary, though it has the added bonus of including interviews with Walter Bernstein and actor Dan O’Herlihy. You also get a very passionate (and young!) George Clooney popping to offer his appreciation for the film. Though he is probably there more for his made-for-television remake of the time he ends up being probably the only subject not directly tied to the film to praise the film on its own merits and not as that not-Dr. Strangelove film.
Criterion does add a new 19-minute interview with critic J. Hoberman, who talks about the nuclear scare of the 60s, adding some context for those that missed that (or the cold war in general), and how this film and Strangelove touched on it. He also does look at the film separate from all of that and gets into Lumet’s style and his thoughts on him as a director, feeling he ultimately didn’t come into his own until the 70s with Network and Prince of the City. It’s a good addition, though has a quickly-put-together feel to it. Bilge Elbiri also writes up a fairly lengthy and in-depth essay on the film, which is found in the included poster insert. The print is a bit small and I would have preferred a booklet or basic fold-out (these posters can be a bit unwieldly to hold while reading) but it’s a good essay that thankfully doesn’t just focus on its untimely release after Strangelove (he gets that out of the way right off the bat).
Overall, the supplements feel to be a bit of an afterthought and rushed together (only one feature is new) but at the very least they’re still worth going through.
As a special edition it's not much of an upgrade over Sony’s two-decade old DVD, but it delivers an outstanding audio/visual presentation that might be worth the upgrade (at least when the title is on sale).