Fail-Safe (Blu-ray) (1964)

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Released 7-Sep-2016

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary-Director Sidney Lumet
Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-Fail-Safe Revisited (16:02)
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1964
Running Time 112:09
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Sidney Lumet
ViaVision Starring Dan O'Herlihy
Walter Matthau
Frank Overton
Ed Binns
Fritz Weaver
Henry Fonda
Larry Hagman
William Hansen
Russell Hardie
Russell Collins
Sorrell Booke
Nancy Berg
John Connell
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI ? Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     At the height of the Cold War the US SAC (Strategic Air Command) maintained nuclear armed bombers in the air at all times. The idea was that if a surprise Russian strike on America obliterated the command structure, the bombers could still retaliate; they were thus an insurance against a surprise strike and a way of preventing war. There were all kinds of safeguards to prevent these bombers attacking Russia by accident, but no system is foolproof. Two films released the same year (1964) postulated an attack on Russia by the bombers; in Dr. Strangelove it was a result of rogue human action, in Fail-Safe a technical glitch. This, of course, was not the only difference between the two films.

     Once the bombers are on their way Fail-Safe takes place in four locations. In a secure bunker in Washington the US President (Henry Fonda) and his translator Buck (Larry Hagman) have a hot line to the Russian Premier, trying to assure him that the attack is an accident and so avoid nuclear war; in the War Room at the Pentagon the joint service chiefs, including General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), plus the Secretary of Defence (William Hansen) and civilian advisor Professor Groetschele (Walter Matthau) advise the President, while in the SAC headquarters in Omaha General Bogan (Frank Overton) and his men watch the evolving action on the incident display. Finally in the lead bomber Colonel Grady (Ed Binns) and his crew do what they were trained to do.

     Whereas Dr. Strangelove was a dark comedic look at a serious subject, a nuclear war, Fail-Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a very serious and very earnest film. Lumet was known for serious and socially aware films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964) , Dog Day Afternoon (1975) or Network (1976) and was nominated for Oscars five times, winning none before receiving an Honorary Oscar in 2005.

     Fail-Safe is shot in black and white, without music of any kind, and takes place in limited locations in pretty much real time, giving the film a documentary feel. Lumet had worked a couple of times with Fonda before, including 12 Angry Men, and Fonda is excellent in Fail-Safe, giving the appropriate gravitas to the role he is capable of, but the real surprise is Walter Matthau who plays a civilian advisor who is more hawkish than the military, believing that an atomic war is winnable by America, no matter what the cost in lives. The voice of reason is, perhaps surprisingly Dan O’Herlihy’s General Black, but paradoxically, it is Black who must deliver the devastating tragedy which concludes the film.

     Fail-Safe is bleak and scary, tragic and realistic. It treats the serious subject of a nuclear war, a realistic threat in the 1960s, in a serious way. Certainly the filmmakers’ intentions were good, as were the anti-nuclear and anti-war messages, but it seems clear that the audience preferred the over the top black comedy of Dr. Strangelove which was released first. Nuclear war is too serious to be taken seriously!

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Transfer Quality


     Fail-Safe is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p using the MPEG-4 AVC code.

     This is a 50 year old black and white film which does not seem to have received anything by way of restoration. Close-up detail of faces and medium interior shots look clear and solid but most of the wider shots are quite soft, with the stock footage of aircraft very indistinct. The print is also quite grainy and marks are frequent, including the vertical scratch around 64:54, but most are not too noticeable except where stock footage is used. Blacks are passable, and shadow detail acceptable. Brightness and contrast is consistent, except for the stock footage.

     There are no subtitles provided.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     Feature audio is English Dolby Digital 2.0 at 448 Kbps, i.e., not lossless, plus there is an English audio commentary, also Dolby Digital 2.0 at 448 Kbps.

     The original film sound was mono and although the Blu-ray audio is surround encoded very little of the effects except a bit of crowd noise and engines are in the rears or surrounds. There is no music in the film, so nothing there either. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, however, and clicks and hiss is absent.

     I noticed no lip synchronisation errors.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


     The extras are the same as were available on the previous US DVD release.

Audio Commentary

     Director Sidney Lumet’s commentary includes some silences but when he speaks he is worth listening to. He talks about the source novel, the cast, the political climate in the US at the time, being sued by Columbia Pictures and Kubrick, constructing the sets on a low budget, the black and white look of the film, his approach to directing, the lack of music, and numerous other things.

Film Trailer (2:55)

Fail-Safe Revisited (16:02)

    Made in 2000 this is still a decent featurette with film and archive footage, movie stills and Sidney Lumet (director), Walter Bernstein (screenwriter), Dan O’Herlihy (cast) and George Clooney (the producer of the 2000 version of Fail-Safe) making comments about the climate of fear in the US when the film was made, the film’s themes, the actors, the production design and the issues with Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     Currently lists only DVD versions of Fail-Safe in the US and the UK. For now we have the only Blu-ray release.


     Fail-Safe is a serious examination of a serious subject, done in an almost documentary style in black and white, without music and with an impressive cast. It has been overshadowed by the fabulous, similarly themed Dr. Strangelove, but remains a tense and gripping cold war thriller.

     The video and audio get the job done. The extras are not new but are definitely worthwhile.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ray Nyland (the bio is the thing)
Friday, October 07, 2016
Review Equipment
DVDSony BDP-S580, using HDMI output
DisplayLG 55inch HD LCD. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderNAD T737. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationNAD T737
SpeakersStudio Acoustics 5.1

Other Reviews NONE
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