Fail Safe – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

The Cold War period allowed many filmmakers to experiment with storytelling, filmmaking styles, and social commentary in their movies. Fail Safe is the sort of Cold War thriller that banked on cultural paranoia as much as it did skilled filmmaking and intense performances. The Criterion Collection has finally brought more justice to Sidney Lumet’s tense picture, providing a spectacular new release, restoring its cinematic quality. This will ideally give many a chance to revisit a film that seems to be regarded more for its similarity to another feature than the quality it contains.


Based on a novel of the same name by Eugen Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe details a nightmare scenario where a mechanical failure has resulted in a race against time to stop nuclear war from breaking out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The film stars Henry Fonda as the President, doing his best to handle the situation and find a resolution. Other stars include Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Edward Binns, Lary Hagman, and Frank Overton.

I first saw Fail Safe when I was in college. This was nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and yet, I was terrified by this movie. It’s not a horror film by any means, but Lumet’s ability to create harrowing sequences based on looming dread and claustrophobic filmmaking (which he similarly relied on in another Criterion release – 12 Angry Men) did a number on my anxiety. This has not changed. While this sort of threat is nowhere near as plausible today (though the current mad man in office certainly enjoys flirting with the idea for “ratings”), the presentation truly works in hitting on doomsday fears.

Famously, this film was produced by Columbia pictures around the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (another Criterion release). Both films have a similar premise. As Kubrick’s film was a comedy, he insisted his film be released first (there was also a lawsuit involved). As a result, while garnering excellent reviews at the time, Fail Safe underperformed at the box office. The film’s legacy became more a matter of how the serious nature of the film was no match for the satirical joy from Dr. Strangelove. As it stands, I have a huge appreciation for both films.

What helps Fail Safe stand out is its procedural presentation. Despite relying on close-ups, sharp shadows, and a theatrical style, there’s a matter-of-fact nature to the presentation adding to how everything plays out. The dark mood of the film, complete with an understanding of the inevitable nature of how things will end, further creates an eerie sense of familiarity, even though the film is rooted in the idea of informing audiences of the dangers that exist, and ideally presenting a cause to push for finding ways to get away from the possibility of mutually assured destruction.

It is a truly remarkable picture. With the chance to sit down and strap in for the ride this tightly edited film places the viewer on, there’s little doubt the film’s age would be a factor in appreciating what Lumet was going for. Fail Safe is a harrowing piece of work that thankfully presents a time we are no longer in deep concern about.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Details: Fail Safe is presented with a new 4K digital restoration undertaken by Sony Pictures Entertainment. A new digital transfer was created at Cineric on the facility’s proprietary 4K film scanner, primarily from the 35 mm original camera negative.

Clarity/Detail: Overall, the black and white image is about as terrific as it can be, given the work done for this transfer. Presented in its original aspect ratio, the film has a stable image that brings out the details in areas we’d want, such as the various rooms people move in and out of, along with moments designed to play broader.

Depth: A proper handle on spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. Thanks to the theatrical level of blocking on display, there’s a great dimensionality on display when it comes to character spacing.

Black Levels: The black levels are great. Fail Safe is highly dependent on shadows and some key lighting choices to add to the drama, which this transfer is able to capitalize on very well.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive. The close-ups are a big part of this, as the level of tension is raised by having a clear look at the faces of everyone we see.

Noise/Artifacts: There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is basically spotless.


Audio Format(s): LPCM 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at Deluxe in Hollywood, under the supervision of Bob Simmons.

Dynamics: There’s a good balance on this track, about as good as it can be. No distortions or other anomalies to be concerned with.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.




Fail Safe arrives on Blu-ray with a small collection of extras, only one being new. Perhaps a bit of a shame, but given the age of the film and style in which it was made, I’d imagine there’s only so much to elaborate on outside of what the commentary track already has to offer.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary with director Sidney Lumet – Recorded back in 2000.
  • Hoberman (HD, 20:00) – A new interview with critic J. Hoberman, who discusses the original novel and its themes, as well as the political climate of the time.
  • Fail Safe Revisited (HD, 16:00) – A short documentary from 2000, made around the time of the live TV remake starring George Clooney. It features interviews and clips with Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actor Dan O’Herlihy.
  • PLUS – An essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri



Fail Safe was an exciting film to see noted back when it was first announced. I’ve always held the movie in high regard for being able to get under my skin. Now I have this spectacular Criterion release, which does a wonderful job of presenting the film in the best of ways, complete with some nice extras to round it out. If you’re seeking a solid Cold War thriller reliant on mood and paired down stylistic flourishes over-elaborate action, this is not one to miss.

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