Tag Archives: John Frankenheimer

Fail-Safe (1964)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fail-Safe</strong> (1964)

(On Cable TV, September 2018) If ever the news have you down, if ever you start despairing for humanity, if even the nights are dark and the days even darker, then have a look at Fail-Safe and be comforted by the fact that we all made it out of the Cold War and its overhanging threat of a nuclear holocaust. A nightmare put on film by director John Frankenheimer, Fail-Safe is one of 1964’s three delayed reactions to the Cuba crisis executed as thrillers. Unlike Seven Days in May, it’s very much centred on the possibility of nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR. Unlike Dr. Strangelove, it’s not a comedy. Really not a comedy. From the first few unsettling images to the last heartbreaking freeze-frames, Fail-Safe is unrelenting in its fatalistic grimness. It follows an implacable logic in which the worst traits of men, machines and systems all lead to the death of millions. Hope is dangled then taken away and even the usually jovial Walter Matthau here plays completely against type as an implacable academician coolly assessing the logic of mutually assured destruction. Peter Fonda is also quite good as The President facing down a catastrophic scenario in which an out-of-control American bomber mistakenly believe it must bomb Moscow. Asphyxiating and merciless, Fail-Safe is shot is stark black-and-white with very few musical cues, its naturalistic approach making everything feel even worse. Such a situation may not be particularly credible today, but it’s sobering to watch the film and realize that it reflected a real possibility back in 1964. We may have our own issues today, but I’ll take them over the threat of all-consuming nuclear war.

Seven Days in May (1964)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Seven Days in May</strong> (1964)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) In between Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, 1964 was a big, big year for black-and-white techno-thrillers in Hollywood. Dr. Strangelove distinguished itself through black comedy and Fail-Safe made few compromises in showing a nightmare scenario, leaving Seven Days in May as the more average film, although this is a relative term when discussing a film in which the United States government discovers an impending military coup and tries to defuse it before it’s too late. The black-and-white cinematography highlights the non-nonsense atmosphere that the film is going for, trying to make the unthinkable at least plausible. There is something admirable to the way the film builds not to an explosive guns-and-explosion confrontation, but to a quiet climax in which the would-be traitors are sent scurrying, and the country avoids a dramatic confrontation that would have had terrible consequences. The film works hard at instilling a basic credibility to its plotting, even with some then-near-future technological touches such as video screens. The tension is there, and being able to rely on capable actors such as Kirk Douglas, Fredric March (at the close of a long career), Ava Gardner or Burt Lancaster. Director John Frankenheimer made his reputation on thriller much like Seven Days in May, and is still effective today. Compared to its two other 1964 techno-thrillers, the film has aged very well—it may be hard to imagine nuclear war today, but overthrowing a president is still within the realm of possibility…

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Manchurian Candidate</strong> (1962)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I thought I remembered The Manchurian Candidate from seeing it (on TV, in French) more than two decades ago, but it turns out that I had forgotten quite a bit in the meantime. Which is a good thing, given that I got to re-experience it all over again. A product of the paranoid early sixties (it was famously released shortly before the Cuba Crisis), The Manchurian Candidate delves into far-reaching Russian plots to destabilize the United States through intervention in its politics—but stop me if this is too familiar circa 2017. What I really did not remember from my first viewing is how early we know of the Russian brainwashing, and the delightfully crazy way in which this is explained, through a dream sequence that switches between real and imagined environments. After that, it’s up to Frank Sinatra as the protagonist to get Laurence Harvey (as the tragic anti-hero) to reject his condition. There are complications. While The Manchurian Candidate remains a clear product of its time, director John Frankenheimer keeps things moving, and the fascinating glimpse at early-sixties contemporary reality is now fascinating and proof that the film has aged well. It even takes potshots at McCarthyism. Sinatra is quite good in a relatively straightforward role, while Angela Lansbury is surprisingly evil as a scheming mother. Better yet, the film itself is a crackling good thriller with interweaving subplots and good character performances. While much of The Manchurian Candidate will feel stiff by today’s standard (and occasionally silly or misleading, such as Sinatra’s character love interest), it remains compelling today and well worth another look.