Friday, May 6, 2011

The Towering Inferno

I've never been a huge fan of disaster movies.  Sure, I get a kick out of big things going boom, but these movies are usually pretty dumb (2012, I'm looking at you) and cliche-ridden (that's you, Independence Day).  Thanks to those tendencies, I tend to only watch the newest disaster flicks; if I'm going to watch a special effects extravaganza with no story, I might as well see the cutting edge technology, right?  Well, I recently realized that I have completely omitted seeing any disaster movies from their prime in the 1970s, the "Decade of Disaster."  For the record, that's not an official nickname for the 70s, that's just what I like to call it for so very many reasons.  Anyway, I thought I'd give a classic disaster film a shot, and I opted for the Academy Award-winning one, The Towering Inferno.

The world's tallest building, the Glass Tower, is having its public dedication in scenic San Francisco.  The ribbon will be cut, and a few hundred people will head up to the 138th floor penthouse for a fancy party with tuxedos, slinky dresses, and (probably) cocktail shrimp.  During a routine systems check before the dedication, one of the electrical boxes on the 81st floor starts a small fire.  The sprinklers don't go off and the fire alarm doesn't sound, though.  For the dedication, they turn on every light in the building to show off just how tall and bright it can be; that turns out to be a bad idea with an electrical system that is already having problems, and things get worse from here on in.  Power malfunctions and skimping on building materials lead to the warning systems going off far too late, and pretty soon there is an inferno working its way up to the party on the 138th floor.

Aren't they a little too happy for a disaster flick?
In a movie like this, the spectacle and special effects are bigger stars than the cast.  And that is really saying something, because this cast is star-studded.  Paul Newman and Steve McQueen co-headline as the world's bravest architect and fireman, respectively.  While this isn't either actor's finest moment, they're both very likable and charismatic, so it's easy to ignore that their characters lack depth.  You can argue that McQueen's character is too preachy and bland, but he does make a pretty good hero.  On the flip side of things, William Holden is solid as the accidentally villainous cost- and appearance-conscious owner of the building; Richard Chamberlain was far less impressive as the corner-cutting businessman whose shoddy materials caused the fire --- I won't say that he's MWA-HA-HA evil, but the man should have had a mustache he could twirl.

The rest of the cast has much smaller and less important roles, but many of the actors are instantly recognizable.  Faye Dunaway is Newman's love interest, and the pair are pretty together.  O.J. Simpson is a security guard who saves a cat.  Fred Astaire plays an ineffective con man, earning a "you've been overlooked for your whole career, so here's acknowledgment for a far lesser role" Academy Award nomination.  Jennifer Jones made her last film appearance here, and it is fairly memorable, if only for her final scene.  Robert Wagner has a small role as the idiot who turned on all the lights, because the city of San Francisco is going to ooh and ahh over a building with electric lights like it's a 138-story Christmas tree.  Stupid.  Robert Vaughn, who I always seem to catch in roles where he plays a jerk, was surprisingly likable as a US Senator (the political kind, not the sports kind).  Mike "Bobby Brady" Lookinland has a small part as a Bobby Brady-age kid.  No, he doesn't die.  Oh, and you might recognize Susan Flannery as a soap opera actress.  Or not.

But, like I said earlier, the cast is largely inconsequential next to the spectacle of this fire.  Without CGI to enhance it, I was a little skeptical as to how good this disaster would look, but I needn't have worried.  They did this the old-fashioned way, through misdirection and real fire.  I thought the movie looked great, especially for one made forty years ago.  There is a lot of smoke, a lot of debris, and (of course) a lot of fire.  What I liked about this fire is that it was obviously dangerous from a very early point.  While the fire started at the thirteen-minute mark, it didn't kill anyone for another forty-five minutes; the characters that died were, surprisingly, not just some random scrubs, but a recognizable actor with a subplot in full swing.  So, the fire is apparent early in the film --- which is important in a movie that clocks in at over 160 minutes --- and deadly to characters that you expect to hang around a while.  That's awesome!  Fire is so rarely shown as dangerous in films (it's more of a cool backdrop most of the time) that this approach feels almost novel.  Pair the dangerousness of the fire with the old-school special effects that actually used fire (and lots and lots of smoke), and this is a pretty believable disaster.  And that's the whole point.

Check, please!
Does that mean that this is a marvel of modern filmmaking?  Not exactly.  I thought John Guillermin did a decent job directing the dramatic parts of the story; there are far too many characters for any of them to be compelling, but he keeps things interesting.  In an interesting move, Irwin Allen is given credit for directing the many action scenes in the film, and I thought these scenes were largely enjoyable...I'm not sure why he gets a directing credit, though.  Maybe they didn't have action choreographers in 1974.  Despite the pretty solid directing, the story is a little shallow and underdeveloped.  That's not shocking for a movie with such a large cast and a plot device that seems to kill cast members at random, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a problem.  With such shallow characters, some moments that are meant to add levity or warmth to the story fall short.  Why, for instance, is Jennifer Jones apparently happy to learn that Fred Astaire is a con man?  Accepting, or even mischievously knowing, I can buy...but she's pretty ecstatic.  And there's a pre-coitus moment between Faye Dunaway and Paul Newman where she tells him that he's "all protein."  Eww.  I understand that these are just snippets used to add the illusion of depth to these characters, but they're pretty odd moments for two of the deepest subplots in the film.

On a quick side note, am I the only person who finds it hard to believe that Maureen McGovern's song, "We May Never Love Like This Again" A) is the theme to a disaster movie B) was performed by her, in a scene, and yet we never see her character's ultimate fate and/or C) won an Academy Award?  Man, the seventies were a strange time.

On the other hand, I like when big things go boom.  While this isn't a flawless movie, it is pretty entertaining, despite a long run-time.  For the most part, I think the movie is surprisingly plausible (except for that stupid helicopter explosion), which is a nice change of pace for a disaster flick.  Newman was good, McQueen was above average, and the largely recognizable cast made for some unexpected fodder for the flames.  I would have liked it better if Newman and McQueen weren't such know-it-alls, but it is kind of nice to have a disaster with obviously culpable parties.

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