Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

In 1964 there were two American movies due to be released both dealing the subject of an accidentally provoked nuclear war. One, and by far the better known movie, was of course Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The other was Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. The two movies are quite different in tone, Dr. Strangelove being a black comedy while Fail-Safe is (or tries to be) a tense political thriller. The similarities in plot are however quite extraordinary. In fact the plots are so similar that Kubrick and Columbia Pictures sued for plagiarism. Having now seen both films more or less back-to-back I can well understand why Kubrick and Columbia felt justified in taking legal action.

The case was settled out of court and the terms of the settlement were that Columbia should buy Fail-Safe. They did so, and delayed the release until well after Dr. Strangelove opened. When Fail-Safe finally came out it bombed at the box office and fans of the film tend to blame this on the delayed release. In fact Columbia acted very sensibly. Dr. Strangelove was a great movie with the potential to be a huge hit (which it was). Fail-Safe is clunky and dull and was never going to set the box-office alight.

Fail-Safe begins with some VIPs being shown around the Strategic Air Command headquarters. An unidentified radar contact causes some mild excitement but apparently this happens all the time. It’s no big deal, probably a commercial airliner off course. This is followed by some real excitement. Six American strategic bombers, armed with hydrogen bombs, have for some completely unknown reason started heading for the Soviet border. Efforts to recall them fail and now there’s a full-blown crisis and the President (Henry Fonda) is notified.

Also present in the War Room is political scientist Dr Groeteschele (based on real-life political scientist Herman Kahn and played by Walter Matthau). Dr Groeteschele sees this as a wonderful opportunity. He advises the President to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. OK, he calculates that at least sixty million Americans will die but that’s a small price to pay  for saving the American way of life from the evils of communism. (Groeteschele appears in an odd prologue scene being picked up at a party by a woman who seems to have a nuclear war fetish).

The President for some strange reason doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to risk destroying civilisation in order to save it and frantic efforts are soon underway to recall the rogue bombers or to destroy them, or at the very least to persuade the Russians that it was all a terrible accident.

The main protagonists all play much the same role that their equivalents play in Kubrick’s film. Dr Groeteschele is as mad in his own way as Dr Strangelove. The President is well-meaning. The military chiefs are divided. 

Although Fail-Safe is played as a straight thriller rather than a comedy it’s actually a lot less tense and exciting than Dr. Strangelove.

Fail-Safe was based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler while Kubrick’s movie was based on an earlier novel by Peter George. The basic plot outline is almost identical.

Sidney Lumet had a remarkable career as a director, managing to make not a single good movie in a very long career.

Fail-Safe is not so much a movie as a political lecture - strident, dreary and clumsy. It demonstrates that Kubrick’s decision to play the same material as comedy was a very very shrewd move. The political subtext in Kubrick’s production is made much more palatable and is in any case more nuanced.

Henry Fonda is an actor I’ve never liked. In this movie he just seems to be playing Henry Fonda. Walter Matthau is ludicrously miscast and his performance is the final disaster that sinks the film. The members of the supporting cast give rather stagey performances. Look out for Larry Hagman in a fairly important role as the President’s interpreter (and he’s one of the better actors in the film).

Sony’s Region 2 DVD looks pretty good and includes a mini-documentary on the film plus a commentary track by director Lumet.

Fail-Safe doesn’t really develop the necessary level of nail-biting suspense. The story has potential but Lumet doesn’t capitalise on it. The whole affair is too self-righteous. I had the same response to this one as I’ve had to most of Lumet’s films. He often starts out with an idea that seems to have potential but he doesn’t appear to know what to do with the idea. The result, more often than not, comes across as thematically incoherent.

If you’re a student of the Cold War or a fan of Cold War movies then Fail-Safe might be worth a look if only for the contrast it makes with Kubrick’s version. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother too much tracking this one down.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

I have a considerable fondness for submarine movies. We Dive at Dawn is a very decent example of the breed. It was a wartime production, released in 1943, and so there’s an obvious propaganda element (all of the British sailors are incredibly brave) but it has some definite compensating strengths. 

The submarine HMS Sea Tiger, commanded by Lieutenant Taylor (John Mills) has just returned from an unsuccessful cruise and her crew are looking forward to seven days’ leave. They’re not going to get it. They get a single day and then they’re immediately sent off on a highly dangerous and super-secret mission - to intercept and sink the brand new German battleship Brandenburg.

The film gets off to a slow start. The first twenty minutes or so follows the various crew members ashore on their very truncated leave. One is supposed to be getting married. One is trying to put his broken marriage back together. As for the captain, he’s hoping to get to see as many of his numerous girlfriends as he possibly can. This introductory materials serves its purpose of giving us an insight into the various characters even if it drags just a little.

Things pick up once they’re at sea and on the trail of the Brandenburg. The plan goes awry but rather than giving up Lieutenant Taylor comes up with an even more daring and dangerous plan - to break through into the Baltic, running the gauntlet of anti-submarine nets, minefields, the Luftwaffe and most of the German Navy. They do catch up to the German battleship, but whether they can succeed in sinking it or not is another matter.

Things gets even better in the final half-hour. The Sea Tiger’s fuel is exhausted and surrender seems to be the only option but instead a much bolder and much crazier idea occurs to our submariners - why not raid a port in German-occupied Denmark and steal the fuel they need? The movie now becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up extravaganza as they end up taking on half the German Army. The whole film is well made but this final segment is particularly well done.

The Royal Navy, seeing the obvious propaganda potential, lent its enthusiastic support and as a result this is a film that looks and feels surprisingly realistic with a lot of emphasis on how a submarine works and how submarine attacks are carried out.

Of course there are all the usual things you expect in a submarine movie - the tense moments under depth charge attack, the efforts to save the damaged submarine, the cunning plan adopted by her skipper to fool the Germans, etc. These are standard elements in a submarine movie but they’re handled skillfully. 

The tone is of course hyper-heroic. Nobody cracks up under pressure because these are British sailors and Britannia rules the waves. The Germans, perhaps surprisingly, are not portrayed as monsters but as fairly ordinary guys doing their job even if they’re no match for our British heroes.

You can’t go wrong casting John Mills as a British officer. Eric Portman (who shares top billing with Mills) is excellent as the hydrophone operator whose personal life is collapsing about his ears.

It looks pretty good on DVD. The image quality might not be be dazzling but it’s more than acceptable. The Region 2 DVD lacks extras but is fairly inexpensive. 

We Dive at Dawn is perhaps just a bit too heroic and just a bit too sentimental but it’s well-crafted and has some genuinely exciting moments. Recommended, and for submarine movie fans it’s a must-see.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dr Strangelove (1964)

My review of Stanley Kubrick's classic 1964 nuclear war black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, posted at Cult Movie Reviews, might be of interest to readers of this blog as well. Here's the link to my review.