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.


Neal Romanek said...

Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Bill Holden, Fred Astaire. You know how that movie ends? It's not water tanks exploding. It's ME having an orgasm!

Arbogast said...

I'm with you - The Towering Inferno has it all over The Poseidon Adventure because it's a movie about process and systems - systems shortcut (to disastrous effect) and systems honored because they save lives.

I have the same "I'll always love" you affection for The Poseidon Adventure as I do for old girlfriends I no longer find sexually attractive but The Towering Inferno is that hot, impossible bitch I couldn't live with for five minutes and couldn't forget for thirty years. And you're spot-on about the Wagner-Flannery sidebar, which is (to my twisted way of thinking) the film's heart. You go in feeling so superior to them because they're so damn smarmy and when they are so completely and (your word) cruelly taken out of the picture you're left feeling a little ankled. The other death that always affects me is that of Gregory Sierra, as the bartender... just didn't see that coming.

The Towering Inferno stops me dead in my tracks every time I run across it on TV (invariably on AMC), leaving me powerless and pop-eyed 'til the final credit crawl. I wish it were on right now. Maybe it is. I'm going to go check.

Anonymous said...

I was there that night as well. I was a bit late but I managed to crawl into a rear seat just before the programmer for the Cinematheque began to speak.

I have to say that there were really two reasons why I was there that night. For one, I absolutely love The Towering Inferno. I have since that day in '74 when I stood in line for 4 hours to see it with my dad.

The other reason is that in '74 when I stood in line to see INFERNO, I stood outside this exact same theater, The Egyptian. Now I have to say that I was a little disappointed in the interior because has been changed dramatically from what it used to look like prior to the renovation and preservation. Still, the touchstone this movie and this theater had on my life could not be passed up.

Great review. Sorry we could not meet that night but I love your taste in disaster films.

Don Mancini said...

Bravo. Regarding the Wagner/Flannery sequence: Oddly, the music accompanying the second half of the sequence the other night was MISSING. I noticed it right away because it's one of my favorite cues ("Trapped Lovers" on the Film Score Monthly CD). The music was missing starting from the point at which Flannery reacts with horror and outstretched arms at Wagner's demise (and the ironic crumbling of the Duncan Enterprises "We Build for Life" sign), all the way to the end of the scene, when Flannery takes a blazing, 65-floor header out the window. Williams's music always gave the scene a terrifying -- yet undeniably exciting -- grandeur. Sans music, Flannery's demise -- sobbing, gasping for air, and finally bursting into flame and then falling -- struck me, for the first time EVER, as hard to watch, and just really SAD. Maybe that's what you were reacting to.

Anonymous said...

Don, I'm not sure it was MISSING, but simply never was there. I just watched my 1984 laserdisc copy of the film and I don't believe it's there either. The cue may have been recorded but never used in the final cut.

I'll have to re-watch it again to be sure.

One other thing I want to mention, There was a 2007 DVD release of TTI that has a very rich and vivid picture and an incredible 5.1 mix of the soundtrack that really pumps the low end of John Williams score through my subwoofers with incredible punch. I was kinda disappointed in the sound quality of the print but that would be my only caveat from that night.

Am I knit-picking?

Don Mancini said...

DRIVE-IN DUDE: After the screening, Laurent Bouzereau also suggested to me that the scene itself was music-less. He even suggested that we bet on it. I won! (Check your DVD. I never forget a music cue.) My prize: Dinner at the revolving rooftop restaurant atop the Bonaventure Hotel, designed by architect John Portman, who also designed the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, which serves as "lobby double" for the fictitious "Glass Tower." The Bonaventure also sports those capsule-like glass, scenic elevators. Hopefully Laurent won't fall out.

Anonymous said...

Don: Just don't push him out!

Thanks for the music cue correction!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to everyone for some of my favorite comments that I’ve ever gotten on this blog. Yes, including you, Neal. Hope all is well over there.


I love that “hot, impossible bitch” idea and you really nail why the Wagner-Flannery stuff is so weirdly effective. I totally understand. Gregory Sierra gets me to like him every time I see him say “It’s a great honor, Senator,” and all I can think is, jeez, it’s just Robert Vaughn after all, but he just seems so nice and happy to bring that wine out.

The Driveindude—

I could have sworn I’d read somewhere that the Egyptian is where it played way back then. It sounds like a great memory that you have which I completely relate to. Glad you were able to see it there again, even if it isn’t quite the place it once was. I did also notice that the sound quality of the print was a little weak but the overall experience was still pretty awesome.


I’m very glad you liked the piece. Though I have the Film Score Monthly CD (amazing disc) and am obviously a fan of this film, I didn’t notice the lack of score in that scene. Good catch on your part! Curious, I checked the scene in the DVD and while the music is of course there, I decided to flip over to the Spanish audio track and found the scene playing with absolutely no score. Why it would be different in various versions is odd, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened (THUNDERBALL comes to mind). Either way, it’s still a bit of a mystery. Enjoy the dinner!

le0pard13 said...

Great write-up, Mr Peel. And some equally great comments. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO seem like the archetypical disaster films of that era (certainly for Irwin Allen). They both have that indifferently cruel element running through them -- Hackman's and Winter's character sacrifice, and what you mention as the "The entire Robert Wagner/Susan Flannery section" -- that really bonds the audience to each film. And I'm pretty sure it was the Egyptian Theatre where I first took it in. TTI has an exceptional cast that really cooks (hehe) on screen. I remember seeing the promotional, behind the scenes material for TTI on TV in my late teens during its initial run. It really built up the excitement, and still the film didn't disappoint. I think TTI, TPA, and AIRPORT remain my early disaster film favorites. Another of your exceptional film examinations, my friend. Thanks.

Unknown said...

The Towering Inferno did indeed premiere at The UA Egyptian in 1974. (I have the hand painted ticket sign that was in the Egyptian's box office!) It was shown in a road-show presentation which included an intermission. The Susan Flannery death scene was without music - only distant fire engine noises and fire sounds which made it all the more immediate. This scene was considered too harrowing when the movie was shown on NBC in 1980 and a music cue was then added to soften the dread of the moment. (this may have been a cue intended for the scene originally but then cut - and then restored for the t.v. presentation) Beyond a doubt, there was no music originally in that scene as I saw this movie eleven times in the theater as a child and was jarred by the music cue when it made it to broadcast television.