What not to do on a hot and smokey day

Generally to escape a hot and smokey day I turn on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), a channel that airs primarily movie classics.  Take me away to the frozen tundra of Dr. Zhivago or the beaches of The Black Stallion. I don’t care.  Any place but here.

However, yesterday, they were broadcasting movies set at the height of the Cold War, 1964, an era of bomb shelters, duck and cover exercises and squadrons ready at any moment to start World War III. Of course that year I could care less about the end of the world.  The Beatles had landed and all that mattered was which one I was going to marry.  I was leaning towards George but then John was so clever and Paul kept telling me with babyfaced sincerity how much he loved me. So it was a hard decision.  Other than chocolate, they were literally all that existed in my addled pre-teen brain. 

I do remember Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb because it starred another great love of my life, Peter Sellers.  It may have the same premise as Fail Safe, the movie I saw yesterday, but Strangelove is so off-the-wall wacky that at least you get a few laughs.

Fail Safe takes itself much more seriously.  The movie was shot in black and white, using as many sharp edges and deep shadows as possible.  Thus, it’s one of those movies so hyperreal that when a character lights up a cigarette you can smell the smoke.  I turned it on just as a squadron of high speed jets carrying nuclear weapons reach the so-called fail safe boundaries. Because of an earlier, misidentified blip on the radar, they assume the US has been attacked and that they have been given the green light to bomb Moscow.

By the time the Central Command figures out what has happened, the pilots have entered a mandatory state of  radio silence.  Enter the President (Henry Fonda) to save the day. At least that’s what I hoped so I stuck with it.  What follows is a heated debate between generals and their “experts” about what to do. The final decision is to send a group of jets on a doomed mission to shoot down their own colleagues.  By this point the Soviet Premier is on the phone with Henry Fonda who promises if our bombers can’t be stopped, he will bomb New York City.  Bye, bye Moscow.  Bye, bye Manhattan.  It’s not the sort of movie to perk you up. On a hot and smokey day, you want Henry Fonda to save the world.

Of course the plot is about as believable as, I don’t know, Dr. Strangelove.  But the ending  is unforgettable.  

29 thoughts on “What not to do on a hot and smokey day

  1. This is a good list!

    At the Whitmore house we had a half pot brownie and watched Death Pool II. If all that on screen fake fighting didn’t blow off the smoke, I don’t know what will.

    Yeah, I think I’ll lean toward a film with a happier ending than “Fail Safe.” Isn’t amazing how afraid we were about nukes in those days, and how passive we are now? More Wall-E than Fail Safe.

  2. Hi Jan,

    Movies that define our lives. This particular genre is a good one for Americans. If you are of a certain age, you grew up hiding under desks and in ditches as a defense against nuclear bombs. “On the Beach” is another good one. It is a close call, but I think I’d take Gregory Peck over Henry Fonda and for sure I’d take Ava Gardner over any other leading lady. Who knew that Fred Astaire was such a good cynical drunk? I’ve noticed that when you write about a historical event your writing shines. Do you want to be a historian? I can think of worse things. I’d like to see your top three movies of all time and why you like them. When I used to hire people, I’d ask them to tell me a joke and what were their favorite three movies. That tells something about a person. My joke starts out with “A man is drinking in a bar…” My top three films are “Blue Velvet”, “Psycho” and “Old Yeller”. Unsure what that says about me. Maybe I like mezcal, soft cloth, hot showers, and dogs? Again, i can think of worse things. Thanks for the post. Duke

    • Thanks Duke – the three movies that pop into my head are Tender Mercies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and North by Northwest. I also loved Dunkirk. Three Billboards is a great movie but too frightening and real to watch again and again. I would tell a lawyer joke because I’ve heard so many of them. Would you hire me?

  3. Rainy day movies are the best. I’ve never seen Fail Safe or even heard of it. I know all about Dr. Strangelove, of course. Which makes me think of Being There, with its plot that seems weirdly plausible in light of our so-called President.

    • Fail Safe has basically the same plot as Strangelove but without the absurdist aspect. I didn’t see it when it came out and from what I’ve read, it didn’t do well at the box office so you’re not alone. Even though it stars Henry Fonda it’s a rather obscure movie.

  4. I hope that the knowledge acquired in my Civil defense class in the 1960-70-s will never come in handy. This is something I want to remember: music, movies, books. It is the most unnatural thing when children have to learn that someone is looking to take away their life.

  5. Fail Safe is unknown to me, but I’ll see if it’s on streaming. Dr. Strangelove and The Beatles tho, I’m with ya.
    I’m sorry it’s hot and smoky out there. :/

  6. Pingback: What do your favorite movies say about you? | JT Twissel

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