Monday, January 12, 2009
No Matter How Hot It Gets Up There
I guess shouldn’t be surprised how much I enjoyed THE TOWERING INFERNO at the Egyptian the other night when it was shown as part of the Cinematheque’s Masters of Disaster series, but maybe I just wasn’t expecting just how terrific it really would be to see it on that huge screen. Whatever you want to say about the crassness of the Irwin Allen style or all the stock elements which were later commented on by the likes of the Zucker Brothers, the film feels like it fully succeeds as a type of Hollywood entertainment that isn’t made anymore. I’m not blind to its faults—and some of this story about a massive conflagration at the dedication of the world’s tallest building is considerably less enjoyable when you start thinking about certain real-world events—but that doesn’t make me like it any less. There are too many things about this movie that I've enjoyed, or at least noticed, over the years to mention but a few things definitely stuck out to me while finally being able to view it in 35mm.
Though THE TOWERING INFERNO was the bigger hit when it was released at the end of 1974, Irwin Allen’s previous disaster epic THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE probably has more of a following in recent years on a cult level and I understand even if for reasons of personal preference I don’t entirely feel the same. For a long time I’ve preferred INFERNO and seeing them both on the big screen has confirmed that feeling. I like POSEIDON, don’t get me wrong, but every time I see it there’s always that dull middle section—you know, the stretch where the characters are just wandering around dank hallways—during which I always wind up zoning out. INFERNO is nearly an hour longer but I stay with it the whole time. Directed by John Guillermin with “action sequences” helmed by Allen, the movie just has more of everything, probably intentionally so. More characters, suspense and situations allow a greater amount of balls to be kept in the air throughout. The camerawork feels more consistently fluid. I don’t even mind how, because of the lengthy running time, the film seems to go on and on. It’s like it’s some kind of an uber-movie in that sense. Anything you could possibly want from your night’s entertainment is provided here and then some. Even the John Williams score has more diversity than in POSEIDON which has a memorable theme that gives the story much of its mythic feel but not much else. INFERNO has a dynamic main title, terrific suspense music, cool 70s easy listening (I find it hard to believe that, except for Mike Lookinland and his headphones, there isn’t a character in this film who doesn’t have their dial set to the San Francisco easy listening station) and a pretty astounding nine-minute cue (“Planting the Charges” on the album) building up to the big explosion at the end.
But to give POSEIDON its due, I understand why people hold it so closely, camp value aside: There is a ‘mythic journey’ feel to it that builds from Gene Hackman’s confrontational priest which, combined with the emotional weight its cast provides, really sticks in the head. The metaphor of climbing through the ship to safety, to ‘life’ as Hackman puts it, which the Williams score helps with immeasurably, is something that seems to be absent from INFERNO, which for whatever reason seems to take the opposite approach. Since the characters trapped up in the Promenade Room can’t escape even if they wanted to (unlike the nameless extras who refuse to go with Hackman and the group in POSEIDON) the idea of such a metaphor is pretty much lost. The all-star players of this film were not the sort who would provide the type of ‘big’ moments we got from Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and the others. Paul Newman’s speechifying feels more a product of the method and the big cry of anguish William Holden gets near the end feels strangely genuine (he has a similar reaction at one point in DAMIEN-OMEN II that I always remember). The best moments for the ultra-cool Steve McQueen (who seemed to get the biggest round of applause from the audience on his first appearance and deservedly so) are of course the kind where he does almost nothing—actually, he’s got just about the two best actor moments in the movie, that bit where he takes off his gear before entering the party for his brief meeting with William Holden and, of course, his legendary “Oh, shit,” when he asks how he’s going to get back down after performing a certain task near the end. I’m not sure why this overall feeling of general coolness is, if it was planned by Irwin Allen or if the various casting cards just fell this way. The closest it gets to some of the POSEIDON-type histrionics are the Mayor and his wife worried about her daughter who “doesn’t even know where I keep the key to the safety deposit box.” Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway make a fantastic-looking couple (they get a great love theme too, especially in the easy listening version) but their chemistry just feels like a different type of movie. Maybe they just felt that the partygoers trapped at the top of the Glass Tower should be presented as more sophisticated city folk than those who were trying to escape the S.S. Poseidon.
And like I indicated, I’m certainly aware a lot of the issues which make the entire premise seem extremely transparent the more you think about it. Whole chunks of dialogue, entire scenes, feel ready made for parody. Maybe it’s part of the charm of the movie that many of the dialogue scenes feel like they’re actually scenes being shot in a movie about Hollywood. I’m continually imagining the clapperboard in front of the actors and someone yelling “Action!” before each take. Even some of the bit players and extras add to this—Don Gordon, Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT plays pretty much the same role here and a few of the characters address a waitress in the Promenade Room, the one who Faye Dunaway famously almost gives her place on the elevator to, as “Marge” and I can’t help but wonder who she is and what she’d have to say about this shoot. I’m also continually fascinated by all the sets (particularly that giant backdrop of the Bay Area out the window, later used as the view from Kirk’s apartment in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) but I never think they look anything like sets. The elevator doors in the Promenade Room, for example, are only slightly more convincing than the turbo lift doors on Star Trek. And when we’re in what looks like an actual interior location—the home belonging to Richard Chamberlain and Susan Blakely—it always looks to me like they just shot the location as is, with no effort to make it seem like a place these characters would actually live, even if I do find the upspoken tension between the couple a little fascinating (Susan Blakely is awfully cute, too). The acoustics in this room aren’t ideal either, giving the impression that they didn’t think that this scene was important enough to have perfect sound. It’s like Irwin Allen, much like William Holden’s Jim Duncan, chose to cut corners in certain areas. These elements don’t do that much damage but it does make the reality feel somewhat more tenuous. Did Irwin Allen care? Do you care? Do I care? Do these things just make the movie better in our eyes? Sterling Silliphant’s dialogue often feels like it’s trying to be quotable in an old-style Hollywood way, like Faye Dunaway’s “Years from now when they talk about this, and they will, remember to tell them that it was my idea.” Whatever you say, Faye. Others, like Paul Newman’s anguished “What do they call it when you kill people?” speech feel like it’s reaching a little too hard for profundity. Not that much of this stuff isn’t still extremely memorable. When William Holden angrily tells Richard Chamberlain, “…if it was caused by anything you did I'm going to hang you out to dry, then I'm going to hang you,” it’s a totally wacko line but I still want to go around quoting it.
The entire Robert Wagner/Susan Flannery section, where they play a boss and his secretary, lovers after hours who are trapped by the fire unable to call for help, nicely encapsulates a large amount of the ongoing appeal of the film. After their ‘cute’ patter Flannery’s famous “Did you leave a cigarette burning?” line inspires snickers but the speed in which the sequence builds to total danger almost gives it the feel of a bizarre nightmare complete with wall-to-wall carpeting. And the speed at which the flames undercut Wagner’s final heroic statement leading into the subsequent scene with Flannery is startling. It feels like she’s made into more of a victim than anyone else in the movie, punished for no reason other than shacking up with her boss. The scene of her demise is the film’s cruelest, maybe a result of Irwin Allen wanting to give us something more disturbing than just another falling body or burning stuntman running around. It also has more real-world associations than anything else and for a few minutes the fun from it all goes away. Not that the film allows us to dwell on this for too long, because soon it’s back to the spectacle. While watching the film I sometimes can’t help but think, “136 stories? Really? Does that work?” but maybe this stretching of what may have been possible provides the film with its own sort of mythic feel anyway. When the final bars of John Williams’ score ring out at the very end, it’s almost like a benediction being provided to us by Irwin Allen (self-appointed in the role of God) himself, like he’s saying “You remember these lessons now and take care.” It’s ridiculous, it’s self-important and, like everything else in THE TOWERING INFERNO, I kind of love it. It’s the sort of larger than life touch which keeps the film not only memorable, but extremely rewatchable. If the Cinematheque shows it again in the future, it’s going to be very tough for me to stay away. Anyway, they'll know where to reach me.