Fail Safe (1964): Lumet’s Cautionary, Al-Star Tale, Starring Henry Fonda as U.S. President

Scripted by Walter Bernstein, based on Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s best-selling novel, Fail Safe tells in a serious mode the story of a U.S. plane that’s accidentally ordered to bomb U.S.S.R., thus plunging the American and Soviet governments into crisis of decision-making as time runs out.

This high-tension drama, done in a bleak and grim mode, is directed with taste and intelligence by Sidney Lumet.  It stars Henry Fonda (as the American President), Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman, and other gifted thespians.

Released by the same studio (Columbia) just seven months after the Kubrick farce, “Fail Safe” suffered at the box-office by following “Dr. Strangelove,” a wild farce based on similar premise. Rumor has it that Kubrick threatened Columbia with a plagiarism lawsuit, forcing the studio’s brass to release his film first.

Audiences opted for Kubrick’s biting, off-the-wall satire, though “Fail Safe” continued to enjoy life as a stage play. It’s a nice companion piece to Lumet’s earlier (and better) “12 Angry Men,” also with Fonda, and staged in similar style, relying on close-ups for creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.


Dan O’Herlihy as Brigadier General Warren A. “Blackie” Black, USAF

Walter matthau as Professor Groeteschele

Frank Overton as General Bogan, USAF

Ed Binns as Colonel Jack Grady, USAF

Fritz Weaver as Colonel Cascio, USAF

Henry Fonda as the President

Larry Hagmna as Buck, the President’s interpreter

William Hansen as Defense Secretary Swenson

Russell Hardie as General Stark

Russell Collins as Gordon Knapp

Sorrell Booke as Congressman Raskob

Nancy Berg as Ilsa Woolfe