Smoke and mirrors: “The Towering Inferno” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

In 1974, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” seemed like both a logical next step for Irwin Allen, progenitor of the wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure (death by water succeeded by annihilation by fire) and a topping-out of the genre. What with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman sharing over-the-title billing and the various Grand Hotel-style victims, villains, heroes and survivors including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughan, Robert Wagner and O.J. Simpson, there didn’t appear to be anywhere to go beyond it. Not that Allen took the hint; a succession of box-office loxes like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure pretty much ended him. Nor did the Hollywood studios, which, alongside Inferno‘s direct competition, the moronic Earthquake, leaped to concoct such masterpieces of the genre as Avalanche (1978), Meteor (1979), and no fewer than three Airport spin-offs, each more stultifying than its predecessor. Only Jaws (1975), a rara avis (rara ikhthys?) that transcended genre anyway, the Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut (also 1974) which is less about a disaster than preventing one,* Rollercoaster (1977) which was more a detective thriller than an outright “disaster movie,” and The Big Bus (1976), a satire on the whole phenomenon (albeit not a terribly funny one) could be said to be decent pictures. The rest were just increasingly ludicrous attempts to cash in.

When I saw The Towering Inferno, at 13-going-on-14, it more or less satisfied my unsophisticated taste for exciting trash — although even then, having read the two books it was based on, it didn’t satisfy me completely. Through one of those odd coincidences, Richard Martin Stern had written a novel (The Tower) about a new, World Trade Center-like New York building catching fire, while Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson had simultaneously published The Glass Inferno, concerning a glass-and-steel Chicago skyscraper and the freak fire that destroys it. (The movie jumped the rest of the way across the country, to San Francisco.) Warner Bros. bought the Stern book and 20th Century-Fox the Scortia and Robinson; rather than compete with each other, they co-produced the opportunistically titled The Towering Inferno (The Glass Tower would have been a more euphonious title, but would have lost the incendiary adjective), splitting the profits. Perhaps inevitably, the picture has the feel, less of a real movie, than of a business venture. Sure as hell it’s calculated to the nth degree. Its approach is schematic in the extreme, the Ross Hunter super-glamour production style mated to a form of storytelling in which character is less important than incident. The screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, was capable of fine work (he adapted, and I think deepened, the 1967 In the Heat of the Night and did a fine job with The Liberation of L.B. Jones for William Wyler in 1970) but, perhaps at Allen’s direction, threw out most of the figures from the novels, and the best story arcs. The characters in The Towering Inferno are almost entirely comprised of cardboard. And we know what happens to that in a fire.

I wouldn’t argue that either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, both of which I have re-read and enjoyed as an adult, are great literature, but they are intelligently and imaginatively written, which is far more than can be of Silliphant’s by-the-numbers script. Stern’s book is the more sobering of the two, ending with the strong implication that the people in the uppermost floor have succumbed to heat and suffocation. (The use of a breeches buoy stretched between skyscrapers comes from his novel.) Robinson and Scortia’s book is fatter, and stronger, with a greater variety of characters (the architect, the builder and the fire chief originate here) and a compelling recurrent stylistic device: The fire, from initial spark to smoldering death, is depicted, appropriately (and frighteningly) as a Beast — a living, breathing, ravening thing feeding, growing and devouring. (The let’s-blow-the-water-tanks climax also comes from The Glass Inferno.)

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Paul Newman, with the movie’s real star.

The human figures are also more real, and less glitzy, than their counterparts in the picture, from the middle-aged gay furniture dealer† contemplating (and, briefly, before he comes to his senses, engaging in) an act of arson who forms an initially uneasy alliance with a young Latino would-be felon to the woman meeting for a loveless, dispiriting bout of sex with a married man and whose fall from the building results in the most shockingly beautiful metaphor in the novel. Silliphant instead invents an aging con-man and his quarry (Astaire and Jones) and a ’70s having-it-all clothes-horse (Dunaway) weighing love against career, while the adulterers are transformed into Wagner and his secretary — who, in Susan Flannery’s fine performance, is at least a woman with some miles on her. Interestingly, the media is entirely invisible in The Towering Inferno: There are no reporters of any kind depicted, and no television coverage on view. (None of the televisions in the building are turned on either; how likely is that?) The Scortia/Robinson novel includes an unscrupulous local television journalist who sees in the fire his main chance, and he might have been the literary source of another nasty reporter in another Fox movie set in a besieged high-rise, the William Atherton character in the 1988 Die Hard.

And yet with all of its dramturgical weaknesses, and even when viewed from a current perspective, somehow the damn thing works. Part of that, I suppose, is nostalgia: Nearly all of the movie’s stars are dead now (or, in Dunaway’s and Simpson’s cases, inactive) and seeing them today elicits a pang that we who once were able can never again go to a theatre and see Paul Newman, or William Holden, or Fred Astaire, or Richard Chamberlain in a new movie. Nor will we see a major studio picture in which the majority of the special effects are real, and not computer-generated, usually indifferently. Whatever opprobrium may be directed toward him, Allen, who directed all of the movie’s action sequences, didn’t stint; there was nothing cheap about his biggest hits. The picture’s cinematographers Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc (the latter shot the special effects scenes) won Academy Awards for their work, and it’s richly textured, especially for a movie of this type, with no embarrassingly obvious blue-screen process shots.

The Towering Inferno soundtrack

On a personal note, I was just beginning, when The Towering Inferno was released, to develop a strong affinity for movies, and for motion picture scoring, and the soundtrack LP was, along with Michel Legrand’s 1973 The Three Musketeers, one of the first I purchased with my own money. I was knocked out by John Williams’ Main Title theme, his almost shocking “Helicopter Rescue” (although the music on that track actually appears elsewhere in the movie) and the mounting suspense, and its release, on “Planting the Charges,” which brought to my ears some of the visceral excitement the movie had elicited from me in the theater. But “Trapped Lovers” seemed to me then — and seems to me now — a work of orchestral genius, and a textbook example of how a gifted composer can create astonishingly fulsome and expressively emotional music from variations on a dreary pop tune (“We May Never Love Like This Again,” Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s inevitable follow-up to Poseidon‘s equally metaphorical “The Morning After.”) Williams goes from a slightly hysterical opening (which, in context, is wholly appropriate) to a tender and increasingly urgent, pulsing accompaniment before building to an agonizing concluding passage and a shattering climax. It’s no wonder Spielberg wanted him for Jaws.

The Towering Inferno was the first picture I can remember seeing with end-credits that lasted more than a minute. Because Allen felt strongly about acknowledging his technical team, the picture ends with a credit sequence that, set to a Williams elegy called, on the LP, “An Architect’s Dream,” ran three-and-a-half minutes… a seeming eternity at the time, although they now routinely run twice as long. And then, as now, I stayed until the end; it just seems a part of the experience even when, as Orson Welles observed (in the 1960s!) “the second assistant powder-puff fellow gets a credit.” This is much more often the case today, thanks to George Lucas’ similar desire, in 1977, to give his special effects staff on Star Wars a more public credit than was the norm. And it leaves me a bit torn: I’m all for the movies’ “grunts” being given recognition. But can’t it somehow be on paper, so that the rest of us don’t have to sit through that endless crawl every time we go to a movie?


*Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for the reminder!

†Robinson was gay, and the novels he co-wrote with Scortia usually contain at least one sympathetic homosexual man.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


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My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


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In a Lonely Place (1950)
A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come.


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Little Caesar (1931)
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


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To Have and Have Not (1944)
Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s.


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Wolfen (1981)
The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


 

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The Towering Inferno (1974)
In spite of everything, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” somehow still works, at least on the level of exciting trash.


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The Train-Robbers (1973)
A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


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Cromwell (1970)
Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


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The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of (and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on) the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

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A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


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Dumbo (1941)
Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

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Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


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Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

That’s Life! (1986)
A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross