COMPARISONS between the maddeningly though
briefly titled Fail Safe ("A", Columbia) and the interminably titled "Dr. Strangelove ... etc." have been widely made. Most Of them gave me the impression that the new picture was the lesser achievement, 1 found the reverse to be the case.
What the two have in common is, of course, the burning topic of the Bomb. "Dr. Strangelove" (which I shamelessly enjoyed while disapproving) was sardonic, satirical, grotesque —and very funny. Fall Safe (I'm afraid the technical title is not made plain enough for me to explain) is a more serious portrait of the men (mainly American) at the top who have It) take the terrible decisions.
Fail Safe is a difficult movie to review, partly because the actual plot should not be given away and partly because the space-fiction (if only we could believe it more fictitious) situation is difficult to understand for anybody as unscientific minded as myself. But it suffices to provide the setting for a film of considerable distinction, original in many aspects and exciting to a degree that stretches the spectator's attention.
One of the most obvious novelties (though not an absolute one) is the lack of music. There have been other movies without music. This one inspires wonder that there should not be more. For it has none of the self-conscious effect as of making a film with one hand tied.
Nor are the natural and incidental sound effects over;tressed. It simply means that bare patches in the film arc aot padded with anodyne mood music but are either filled n by the action or spaced intelligently enough to stretch and ,timulate the spectator,'s concentration.
Then a number of the principals are blessedly unfamiliar. which contributes to the documentary illusion of a senior conference. with the President of the United States at its summit, dealing with one of those accidents which we all fear might "spark off" the war. Most of the counsel and communication is made by radio or telephone (even direct from the White House to the Kremlin). For a main sequence we see only the President (Henry Fonda) telephoning to the Soviet chairman and the young interpreter translating the answers direct from Russian.
Fonda gives one of his finest performances, and the teamwork generally succeeds in giving a most valuable sense of the strain and martinet discipline to which all these top men are subjected and above all of the supreme loneliness of the President. All this is valid, and kept me on the edge of my seat till very near the end, even though the situation is not worked out to a very logical or convincing conclusion.
This is a film with an almost all-male cast and when I saw it the audience was predominantly male. I couldn't help wondering what a small girl of about seven was doing there.
Bette Davis has built her career by being an aggressive rather than an appealing actress. So it always seems necessary to judge her by her own standards. Now that she is a positively elder character queen she is easier to take than as a heroine. But Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte ("X", Carlton) from Miss Davis' point of view belongs to the period after "Baby Jane".
So the eccentric spinster struggling against being evicted from her deep Southern mansion and being deliberately driven mad by vindictive friends and relations has to be even more grotesque and gorgonlike. The trouble is that the core of "Baby Jane" was the fascinating problem of what exactly does happen to an ex-child star. Sweet Charlotte is just the victim of a piece of melodramatic Hollywood neo-Gothic gorgonzola.
The only possible pretext—no excuse—for making this horrid piece where dead lover's hands and heads are tossed about and preserved for 15 years, women hurled down spiral stairs, and Miss Davis brought to the threshold of the madhouse by combined drugs, hypnotism and soft music. for making this farrago into a film of over two hours seems to be to give all four leading actresses fair scope.
They certainly take it. Olivia de Havilland as a returning cousin can do the sweet sweet smiling villainess with echoes of her own Melanie and "The Snake Pit" and still have power in reserve for a final outburst. The magnificent Agnes Moorehead has a field-day as a moronic family retainer of the kind nobody would believe who had never met one as 'extreme in real life.
But Fm not sure that Mary Astor doesn't act all three of them off the screen. The fihrt would be very nasty if it were not so silly. but the quartette of actresies is worth seeing. So is Cecil Kellaway as an insurance representative from England. It is always pleasant to see Joseph Cotten, who plays the doctor, hut he must surely have chosen this piece as a joke.
Jean Renoir is one of the few directors whose every picture --all his French pictures, anyway—can almost be guaranteed worth seeing. There seems no explanation why his Les Crimes de Monsieur Lange (Academy Cinema Club) should never previously have been shown in this country.
It makes a splendid French museum treasure, not so much for the story as for the sunny, affectionate, ironic picture of French life, and only dated by the names in the cast—Rene Lefebvre, the shy hero of "Le Million", and Jules Berry in a rich ripe sketch of a florid, shameless seducer. For all who love films.