Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Flip Side of Dr. Strangelove

Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau): Mr. Secretary, I am convinced that the moment the Russians know bombs will fall on Moscow, they will surrender. They know that whatever they do then, they cannot escape destruction. Don't you see, sir? This our chance. We never would have made the first move deliberately, but Group 6 has made it for us, by accident. We must take advantage of it. History demands it. We must advise the president not to recall those planes.

I have often said that Sidney Lumet's "Fail–Safe," which premiered on this date in 1964, and "Dr. Strangelove," which premiered in January 1964, should be shown back to back. They are, essentially, opposite sides of the same coin — unintended nuclear attack.

In "Dr. Strangelove," it was triggered by an insane U.S. Air Force general who kept babbling about "precious bodily fluids." In "Fail–Safe," a mechanical malfunction caused by Russian interference unleashed a squadron on a mission to bomb Moscow.

This forced the Americans to do things they never dreamed they would do — in order to prove to the Russians that the mission was a mistake, that a retaliatory attack was not necessary and that they would share secrets with the Russians that would help them shoot down the planes.

This led to some memorable dramatic performances by some actors who are remembered for their comedic skills. In his second–ever movie, Dom DeLuise, for example, played a small part as a technical sergeant who, because he occupied the lowest spot on the totem pole, was forced to divulge to the Soviets how to destroy air–to–air missiles on American aircraft.

DeLuise's character unknowingly triggered a false "go" signal when he replaced a failed electronic component.

Walter Matthau played a hawkish professor who happened to be addressing the Department of Defense that day. He provided reminders of unpleasant facts — for example, in arguing against futile attempts to rescue victims of a midday bombing of New York City, he said troops should be deployed to save the documents of the many corporations that kept their records in the city. "Our economy depends on this," he observed in a rather lifeless monotone that suggested that he could see both the irony and the absurdity of deploying troops with orders to rescue paper instead of people.

Henry Fonda was brilliant (as always) as the president who had been placed in an extremely delicate position, the kind that civilians know a president could face at any time — but they devoutly hope he never will. His translator was played by a young Larry Hagman; the relationship between Fonda and Hagman, sitting together far below the surface and sharing conversations with the Russians, was one of many highlights in a story of relentlessly escalating tension.

It was a riveting drama, the exact opposite of "Dr. Strangelove," which was a spot–on satire.

Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that 1983's "WarGames" was a "'Fail–Safe' retread." I never really thought of it that way, but I have to admit he was right — if he meant that in a complimentary way. And how could he not? There were similarities between the movies; being compared to "Fail–Safe" was a compliment — even if "WarGames" came up short.