THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE
**/**** Image A Sound B+ Extrss B+
starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley
screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Paul Gallico
directed by Ronald Neame
THE TOWERING INFERNO
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extrss A
starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway
screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson
directed by John Guillermin
**½/**** Image B Sound A-
starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene
screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo
directed by Mark Robson
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It's the politically-sensitive early-'70s. Action movies are now Balkanized along ideological lines. Bona fide westerns have become completely hippefied (Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), while the values of the traditional western have been transplanted whole into a new genre of gritty law-and-order cop movies (Death Wish, Dirty Harry). The question facing Hollywood is: how do you make an action movie with across-the-board appeal? Irwin Allen hit on a temporary solution with his series of disaster flicks. In 1977, George Lucas stumbled upon a permanent one. I'm not sure it really sank in until I watched Allen's The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno back-to-back just how deeply Lucas' little space opera changed the face of popular entertainment. The broadly allegorical Star Wars films were not only a collective experience, they were a powerful collective experience, too. They placed serious religious issues in a palatable context and provoked a deeply spiritual response from the masses.
One of the principal differences between the new disaster films (at least those not directed by Wolfgang Petersen) and the originals is that the new ones anthropomorphize their disasters. At the time of its release, the twisters in Twister were seen as the Jurassic Park dinosaurs in meteorological drag. (Michael Crichton co-wrote both films.) Twisters take Helen Hunt's parents away and the tornado became her Moby Dick. Somewhat less obviously, the "wave of cold" in The Day After Tomorrow and the lava in The Core are photographed and scored like movie monsters. They even have chase scenes. The newer filmmakers seem to have internalized the lesson of Star Wars in placing their conflict in a broad mythological context, knowing that this has the potential to reach the audience more profoundly than the more secular approach practiced by the Irwin Allen films, where fire and water represent fire and water. I hesitate to make the observation, as it reduces the cinema to a consumer product, but Star Wars has conclusively rendered the Irwin Allen disaster picture obsolete.
Case in point: the 1972 cult classic The Poseidon Adventure. The storyline is simplicity itself. On New Year's Eve at midnight, a massive wave turns over the luxury liner Poseidon, killing most of the crew and threatening to drown its passengers. A handful of survivors, led by Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), must negotiate their way up to the bottom of the ship, where the steel is the thinnest and they have the greatest chance of being rescued. The constant threat of an advancing waterline and doubts from group members as to the validity of Scott's leadership, in particular from surly police detective Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), develop into juicy dramatic conflict.
The screenplay, by Wendell Mayes and Oscar winner (?!) Stirling Silliphant, is just plain terrible. Deaths are quick and arbitrary, so much so that the pathos the filmmakers try to milk from them never accrues much emotional weight. The dialogue is lame--one could centre a drinking game around how often either Borgnine or his screen wife Stella Stevens bark "Shaddup!" Characterizations are underwritten. We learn early on that Rogo's wife was a prostitute, but this information never pays off later in the film. The Jewish couple Belle and Manny Rosen (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) wear their Jewishness on their sleeves and talk about seeing their grandchild in Israel. There are a lot of fat jokes at Winters' expense, which is annoying on three levels: 1. Fat jokes are pretty primitive in and of themselves ("Hey, she's fat! Haw haw haw haw!"); 2. Mayes and Silliphant wind up substituting fat jokes for character development; 3. A lot of bonhomie neutralizes whatever heat these fat jokes might produce. Indeed, Winters delivers most of them at her own expense. At one point, the precocious little boy pulling her up tells her, "Don't worry, Mrs. Rosen, I once helped my Dad pull a 600-pound swordfish off Hawaii." Later on, he apologizes and says he didn't mean it to sound like she weighed that much. This movie is too sweet to be mean and too stupid to be good.
Studio hack Ronald Neame's direction has a hiccup here and there of laughable incompetence. When the ship capsizes, the people fall down through the frame (in reality the camera was tilted and they were pulled vertically) and Neame then cuts to shots of dummies falling on the floor. Everybody in the film overacts a little bit, but most are professional enough to rein it in at a remotely tolerable/human level and consign any blame for the film's poor quality to the screenplay. That said, Eric Shea, who plays said precocious little boy, fails to thread any of Mayes and Silliphant's straw into gold. He's distractingly plastic, a cartoon in a world of melodramatic caricatures. His overly physical reaction to a heavy tropical storm is nothing short of cringe-inducing, and I can't help but think Neame should've tried harder to bring him up to par with the rest of the group. Or recast the role. By and large, Neame's direction is boringly utilitarian. The film is campy in individual moments, but it's not consistent enough to evolve into an ironic perspective. The Poseidon Adventure needed either a really great director or a really bad one to work on that level. Neame's greatest weakness appears to be crowds. The crucial New Year's party scene feels strangely underpopulated and there are too many shots of the ensemble just standing around in the frame.
I quite like some stuff in the film: the famous shot of a passenger falling away from the camera into a skylight has more than earned its reputation, and Winters' death scene is genuinely disturbing. Seeing her baby fat face twist in pain, you feel distinctly violated. Generally speaking, however, this is a dull movie, lacking in any real filmmaking excitement. It's not great art. The ocean wave doesn't represent anything besides itself and I can't identify any overarching message to the film other than, as the film's theme song says, "there has to be a morning after." And so we are left with the spectacle of it--and on that level I kind of felt like a ten-year-old politely looking at his father's electric football set before going back to his XBox to play "Madden NFL 06".
Most of the problems of The Poseidon Adventure are remedied in 1974's The Towering Inferno, but at the cost of something I guess I would call a soul. The Poseidon Adventure is a bad movie, but it's precisely the kind of bad movie that audiences could get nostalgic over and appropriate as their own. While I don't belong to The Poseidon Adventure cult, I can understand why it exists. The Towering Inferno? Eh, it achieves precisely what it set out to do, and as an action movie it's all top-notch. But I can tell you that considerably fewer people are likely to call it their favourite movie. The awfulness of The Poseidon Adventure, I guess, helped to prevent it from being true collectivist cinema. The Towering Inferno, by contrast, is all collectivist cinema. I don't know, it did pretty much everything that I wanted The Poseidon Adventure to do and still I don't care for it. I suppose this is as good as the Irwin Allen disaster pictures get.
The towering inferno of the title is a glass skyscraper that has caught on fire on the day of its grand opening. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) quickly discovers that cheap wiring caused the blaze. Turns out the contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), cut costs by following the bare minimum of the building code's requirements. Roberts calls the fire department, commanded by Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen). O'Hallorhan demands that the building be evacuated, but the building's owner James Duncan (William Holden) refuses to break up his party. He also has a vested interest in minimizing the fire's threat, as he doesn't want to be held morally or legally accountable for the damage.
The Towering Inferno is considerably more grown-up and sophisticated than The Poseidon Adventure. Corporate irresponsibility makes only a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in The Poseidon Adventure, but here it's a major plot point, adding much-needed meat to the stew. The dialogue isn't as bad, either--it sounds scripted from time to time ("Why couldn't you have cut floors instead of corners?"), but there are no howlers and it largely avoids insulting your intelligence. If there are a few too many subplots and characters, the characters show more development than do those of The Poseidon Adventure. Yes, Simmons is a snarling villain who not only is responsible for the fire, but also attempts to cheat on his wife and steps over other captives when he gets the chance to escape--but points ought to be awarded for giving the richer and more powerful James Duncan a moral conscience.
It also looks like a real movie. The directorial chores were divided between Irwin Allen and John Guillermin, Allen for the action sequences and Guillermin for the surrounding drama. (Only Guillermin is officially credited.) The strategy apparently worked: Guillermin infuses what would be the slow parts with a kinetic energy that nearly matches the intensity of the set-pieces. And the set-pieces are hella intense, benefiting from Allen's attention to detail and obvious love for the work. The climactic sequence, which pits a flood of water against a burning tower, is an especially sterling example of great technical filmmaking. How could they have controlled the flood enough to ensure it put out the fire without drowning their all-star cast?
As good as the action sequences are, the combined wattage of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen carries the film. This is actually my first Steve McQueen movie; on the basis of this one, it's evident he's not much of an actor but wields considerable power as a movie star. His firefighter character accrues the weight of a mythic, Shane-like hero. He's a man with no past and no future, almost existing outside of time, who only manifests himself in this dimension when there is a fire to fight. McQueen is so utterly sincere in the role that you don't realize how goofy it all is until days afterwards.
Having read Roman Polanski's account of him in his great autobiography Roman and familiarized myself with the film via the featurettes provided on the Special Edition DVD, I know that McQueen was, for all intents and purposes, a total dick. He signed on to The Towering Inferno with the intention of outshining Paul Newman, whom he considered an inferior actor and unjustifiably the top name in the industry. To guarantee they had an equal playing ground he demanded that he be given the exact same number of lines as Newman. As far as the contest goes, I'd call it a draw. Newman is unquestionably the film's lead. Unlike McQueen, he has a healthy ego and is personable in a way that lets audiences relate to him. He'll bleed if you prick him. Still, McQueen steals the movie whenever he's on screen. McQueen believes in his godliness so much that he sells us on it. The thing about God is that nobody could possibly sit through a film with nothing but Him in it, but whenever He is on screen you can't bother paying attention to anything else.
Of course, this is all faint praise as far as it goes. The Towering Inferno is essentially just an action movie about a burning skyscraper. Again, the fire doesn't symbolize anything but a fire. Some of the movie guides I've consulted (like Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies and Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide) complain that the violence is sadistic. At first, I wondered whether this was because the sinners (like an adulterous couple and, of course, Simmons) seem to be picked by the fire to die while the repentent get to live. But then they kill off a nice, relatively innocent character and you realize that although they might've contrived a few of the initial casualties to satisfy our vengefulness, this "good guy" death is there to keep us on our toes. The death selection isn't dictated by a sense of movie morality but by what would push the audience's buttons the hardest, something that may well be a larger grievance. Whatever its improvements upon The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno is no more sophisticated allegorically. We've moved from "there's got to be a morning after" to "don't build skyscrapers, they're fire traps." For the sake of my sanity, I won't get into how this was nominated for the 1974 Best Picture Oscar alongside Lenny, The Conversation, Chinatown, and The Godfather Part II.
It's a common misconception that Mark Robson's 1974 film Earthquake was an Irwin Allen production when in fact Allen had nothing to do with it. The film was cooked up as counter-programming to The Towering Inferno at Universal, except it looks pretty cheap next to Allen's juggernaut. Despite starting out by helming some of the minor Val Lewton films (Isle of the Dead and Bedlam, the latter of which I've always thought is almost as good as I Walked with a Zombie), a resume that suggests skill, Robson has a surprisingly poor grasp of film grammar. In a well-made film, scenes are like paragraphs on a page. Each one has its own beginning, middle, and end and then you move on to the next one. The scenes in Earthquake don't come to a real end, they sort of clunk together one after the other, perhaps in an attempt to mimic momentum. Though the preamble to the quake is aesthetically torturous to watch, the earthquake itself is cheesy fun. The camera shakes and people get hit on the head with debris and bright red fake blood runs down their faces. If none of the individual deaths in the film are that memorable, Robson betrays more interest in conveying a general feeling of chaos, anyway. Some of the images of the post-disaster Los Angeles have a nice pop-apocalyptic glow to them.
Earthquake doesn't have the grandiosity of the Irwin Allen films or even a recent disaster epic like The Day After Tomorrow. Oh, there are a couple lines here and there about how they shouldn't build skyscrapers in earthquake zones, but it doesn't amount to anything. The film is upfront with the fact that it exists to depict the levelling of Los Angeles, and everything else is pretty much filler. The film advertises its lack of pretense with the title: it ain't fancy like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. It's just plain Earthquake. This really bugged me at first; I've said these pictures don't have anything meaningful to say, but still, that faux-weight gave the Allen productions a real body that was part of the meagre attraction. All the same, I found myself warming up to Earthquake.
Comprised of a bunch of mini-arcs, Earthquake doesn't have much of a narrative thrust. Architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is unhappily married to his boss' clinically-depressed daughter (Ava Gardner). He's having an affair with the painfully gorgeous up-and-coming actress and single mother Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold). Police officer Lew Slade (George Kennedy) is suspended from the force after punching out another cop for preventing him from cutting through Zsa Zsa Gabor's backyard while pursuing a hit-and-run. He intends to get good and drunk at the local watering hole, where he runs into his friend Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), who needs to borrow some money for a motorcycle stunt. Slade, reluctant at first, acquiesces once Quade shows him the official Miles Quade T-shirt--as modeled by his assistant, the busty Rosa (Victoria Principal). Slade isn't the only one with eyes for Rosa: grocer and martial arts enthusiast Jody (Marjoe Gotner) gives her free groceries when she shops at his store, a generosity that Rosa feels somewhat reluctant to accept. And then the earthquake hits.
The film is so lackadaisical about telling a story and milking the deaths for pathos that a funny thing happens: the stock characters are allowed some space and room to breathe and they come alive. That's really taking the back door to establishing a character-based cinema, isn't it? Not giving a shit, I mean. I found myself much more attached to these people than to anyone from The Towering Inferno. It has heart where the latter film has brawn. In some ways, casting George Kennedy as the heroic if slightly alcoholic cop demonstrates more affection and admiration for our civil servants than does casting Steve McQueen as a firefighter. These men aren't gods, they're working slobs who do their best with what they've got. And as cold and cruel as Graff is to his wife and as indifferent as we are to him at the start of the film, that only accentuates the emotional wallop when he chooses her and death over safety and his mistress at the end of the film. Seeing cold hard bastards trying to do good always makes me go rubbery--that may be why I actually liked the Thandie Newton rescue scene in Crash.
I also found that, despite Principal's poofy 'fro and the emphasis on stunt motorcyclists, Earthquake isn't as dated as the two Allen films. The Poseidon Adventure doesn't have anything to do with any recent disasters as far as I can tell, and I only thought of 9/11 while watching The Towering Inferno in terms of the firefighter worship and the fact that it probably would never be remade today. With Earthquake, we can draw fruitful allusions to the recent Katrina disaster. There is a near-rape scene in the film, echoing the breakdown of civilization following Katrina and the need to build it up anew. The military is sent out to control the area, but they're more interested in arresting looters; police and other civilians save most of the lives. The film is anti-military but pro-police, which strikes me as a relatively sophisticated attitude and more attuned to the present zeitgeist than to that of the post-'60s counterculture. I'm not somebody who feels there is any subject too raw, sensitive, or serious for popular entertainment (I can honestly say that I feel A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child largely informed my attitude towards abortion), and Earthquake effectively places the Katrina conflict in an artistic context, stressing, in its underhanded way, the power of community in bringing the best out of people following a catastrophe. Earthquake is not quite a substitute for the slick The Towering Inferno, but it's a valuable supplement.
Less cross-promoting than riding the wave, so to speak, of the release of Wolfgang Petersen's already-forgotten remake of The Poseidon Adventure for Warner Bros., Fox has reissued both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno in sterling two-disc Special Editions. The Poseidon Adventure sports an intelligent, handsomely-restored 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Some of the more garish colours may have been dialled down a little from the source material, but this lends the picture a more film-like appearance in the digital realm. The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio is impressively sturdy and detailed but there's little in the way of left-right imaging until near the end when our heroes bang against the hull to attract a rescue crew.
Commentary participants include director Ronald Neame and, on a second track, stars Pamela Sue Martin, Stella Stevens, and Carol Lynley. One shouldn't feel guilty for infantilizing the 95-year-old Neame--it's likely near impossible not to. Nice guy, obviously lived a good life, but man is he past his sell-by date; watching the film with him my neck began to hurt from politely nodding so much. Neame betrays little experience with recording yak-tracks: he constantly rehashes the plot and at one point expresses amazement at how long the movie is and how long he is expected to talk. Near the end, he asks us, "Who is going to be the one to die and who is going to survive? Is it going to be the young boy?"--neglecting that we wouldn't be listening to his commentary if we hadn't already seen the film. He apologizes for initially thinking the movie was going to bomb, for letting Hackman and Borgnine overact, and for photographing Stella Stevens in her underwear despite that it's justified by the story. Several times throughout the yakker he says that the Hackman and Borgnine characters would probably be friends and cooperate if put in this situation in real life, but that wouldn't be very interesting for the audience to watch. Um, yeah.
The track with the actresses is more bearable, if considerably less interesting. Lots of cooing over how great an actor Gene Hackman, lots of cooing over how great the movie is, lots of repeating their favourite lines. Near the end, one of them talks about how they received a horrible review from one critic at a press screening and it would have helped them so much if he had had nicer things to say. Well, pardon me all over the place. Disc 1 also features an "interactive 'follow the escape' feature" toggleable at various times throughout the movie to show the precise location of our heroes on a colourful blueprint of the Poseidon. Nice gesture, but it would have been cooler if it was, you know, more interactive: as soon as you activate it, it moves in super tight on a group of multicoloured icons symbolizing the surviving members. There is no way to go to a wider view or to explore the entire map to get a better idea of where they are relative to the rest of the ship.
AMC's 25-minute "Backstory: The Poseidon Adventure" headlines Disc 2. Not a lot of dirt, but Irwin Allen sure was dedicated to making this utterly worthless movie. 20th Century Fox was deep in the red at the time and cut his film's five-million dollar budget in half. Undaunted, Allen hit the country club across from the Fox studio lot looking for investors to pony up the other 2.5 million. The doc features video footage of a campy Poseidon Adventure musical put on by some of the picture's hardcore fans (a treat) but also dips into a 1972 making-of featurette included among the disc's extras.
Said featurette is insubstantial, though I enjoy these vintage featurettes as they have the air of discovering something long-buried and unseen. Also confirmed is my admiration for Fox's transfer of the feature film--the ocean here is so blue it looks fake. Titled "The Return of the 'Movie' Movie", it strangely positions The Poseidon Adventure as an antidote to the sex-driven low budget movies that were dominating Hollywood at the time. I have to say, though, if you like expensive movies but don't like sex, this is the movie for you. Additional material is as follows:
The Cast Looks Back (6 mins.)
Exactly what it sounds like with few surprises. Most of the more memorable actors--Shelley Winters (deceased, but quite a while after Roddy McDowell, who they managed to include), Gene Hackman, and Ernest Borgnine--are missing in action. It also would've been nice if they could have found Eric Shea, now an electrical contractor in the Los Angeles area. No dice, alas.
Falling Up with Ernie (4 mins.)
Poor Ernie Orsatti relates the story of how he was hired as an actor for the film but was talked into performing the skylight stunt by Irwin Allen during filming under the pretense of "we want all the actors to perform their own stunts," a bald-faced lie.
The Writer: Stirling Silliphant (9 mins.)
A bizarrely reverent look (bizarre because the script for The Poseidon Adventure is so awful) at screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. The main thing that seems to impress the panel of screenwriters interviewed is that he was so prolific, oftentimes working on three projects simultaneously. They delve into his work on The Towering Inferno, which is indeed an achievement given the number of demands Steve McQueen placed on him. ("I want the same number of lines as Paul Newman. I have a lisp, stop giving me so many Ss. Paul Newman doesn't have enough dialogue, he's stealing the scene by not saying anything.") Any screenwriter who could come up with an adequate end-product--and without killing McQueen--has earned my admiration.
The Heroes of the Poseidon (10 mins.)
Several theories about the film's origins of myth are thrown out: it follows Joseph Campbell's hero cycle (not really) and it follows Dante's Inferno (sort of, in that they start out at a party and move up to the bowels of Hell--alas, the argument that they are almost separated into those who deserve to die and those who do not doesn't support the data) before professor of religion (at Pepperdine University, a fact unmentioned in this featurette) Christopher Heard throws out that it's an adaptation of the Christ myth. That actually works. Hackman's Reverend Scott is the Christ figure. Those who place their faith in him will end up surviving, or at least live longer, than those who do not. A scene where he closes the door while those who stayed on ground drown to death develops a distinctly Christian resonance. He wanted to save them, but they made the choice not to go with him and he has to honour that choice even if it means they're damned. And, of course, he sacrifices himself so that the rest of the group can move towards safety. Pretty cool.
The Morning After Story (9 mins.)
The background behind the Academy Award-winning song "The Morning After." Songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn only had 24 hours to churn it out. Carol Lynly lip-synch's Maureen McGovern's vocals in the film. Panel members agree that the song is about "hope."
The R.M.S Queen Mary (6 mins.)
A near-death experience on the Queen Mary is what inspired novelist Paul Gallico to write The Poseidon Adventure. The ship would then double as the Poseidon during the shoot. The featurette looks as though it were produced separately from the rest of the featurettes, feeling atonal in a similar way as Entys Dickinson's "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West" from the Once Upon a Time in the West DVD. It has the musty, faux-nostalgic feeling of a bad History Channel doc, but I have to admit it told me everything I want to know about the Queen Mary.
"Sinking Corridor" (3 mins.) "Generations of Fans" (3 mins.), and "Turning Over the Ship" (2 mins.) are all filed under "Conversations with Ronald Neame" and could have easily been combined in one featurette. Neame describes how they performed the sinking corridor and the turning-over the ship special effects sequences, it's basically all trick photography, old boy, and in "Generations of Fans" he slowly reads a letter he received by a fan of the film. As I suggested while transitioning between this film and Towering Inferno, most of the fans of The Poseidon Adventure tend to be people who saw it as children. Neame admits here and in his yakker that it's basically a kid's movie, thus explaining everything for me.
A teaser trailer for The Poseidon Adventure, theatrical trailers for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, an AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER interview with cinematographer Harold A. Stine, three photo galleries, and storyboard-to-film comparisons for three key sequences round out the set.
Fox's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Towering Inferno is every bit as sophisticated as their work on The Poseidon Adventure. Fires are a nice bright yellow and day skies are a nice deep blue, but the chintz factor of the 1974 setting is kept under control and a genuine filmic feel is maintained throughout. The Dolby Digital 4.0 surround sound is great: choppers sound good and choppy and fires sound good and angry. (When they're extinguished, they give a good sizzle.) The John Williams score is booming and encompassing. This is a powerful, well-detailed mix.
I'm usually not terribly receptive to the brand of scholarism practiced by film critic F.X. Feeney in his feature-length commentary track. He talks a lot about how the screenplay is structured and how compositions are used to convey meaning in an effort to prove that The Towering Inferno is top-notch factory product. I'm pretty dogmatic about the idea that one shouldn't go to school to study film, since they can't teach you how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yet Feeney never comes off a snob, he has an accessibility that makes him a pleasure to listen to; I can honestly say that his commentary is never boring or particularly lacking in substance. Although it doesn't form the basis for his critique, he seems to like The Towering Inferno as a man's picture. It's all about male rites of passage, men finding their place in the MS. era, etc.--anthropological stuff that could explain Feeney's attraction to the film.
Mike Vezina, special effects director on X-Men: The Last Stand, and Branko Racki, stunt coordinator on The Day After Tomorrow, each record a brief, scene-specific commentary. Vezina sounds rather exhausted, frankly, and while he respects the work done on the film he comes off as rather bored when disclosing the background information. Racki is a lot livelier and is surprisingly gracious toward the actors who did their own stuntwork--even Fred Astaire, whose simple extinguishing of a fire with his coat is thought by Racki to be a pretty dangerous stunt for a man his age.
Disc 2 contains a slight variation on the extras offered on The Poseidon Adventure Special Edition. AMC's "Backstory" (22 mins.) is back and with a better story. Irwin Allen had bid on the film rights for the novel The Tower on behalf of Fox but lost to Warners. Not wanting to let the project go, he found an outline for a near similar property called The Glass Inferno, bought it, and rushed it into pre-production. He then demanded a meeting among execs from both studios and said that it would do no good for them to both come out with burning skyscraper movies and they should just combine them with him producing and co-directing. It worked, and Allen received a nice juicy budget from the two studios. This Allen guy has balls of steel. If only somebody would have thought of this in '98 and spared the world of either Deep Impact or Armageddon. "Backstory" also gives us the lowdown on the McQueen/Newman rivalry in which, again, McQueen unquestionably comes off the bigger ass. Savour the muckraking goodness!
The 45 minutes of deleted/extended scenes is the one real weak spot of an otherwise uniformly excellent package. Taken from a longer television broadcast of the film but in too poor condition to be reintegrated into the theatrical version, each deleted scene is presented with the surrounding theatrical footage in black-and-white. This supplement reminded of what Mike Nichols has to say about showing a film's elided material on the DVD release:
"I've never understood that aspect of DVDs, where you suddenly put back the things you took out that could go. Why ruin your movie? With material that you've taken out? I never get that. I don't have that impulse... To put them back seems very unpleasant to me. And pointless. It's like when you've written something, when you cut a paragraph, doesn't it seem dead to you? Doesn't it look like something you'd never want to include, because the point is, it could go? You'll never see anything in my pictures, the stuff that came out, stays out."
What was put back in the broadcast version was fat to spread the film out over two nights--completely unnecessary stuff that slowed things down and was justifiably trimmed off. Who but the most fanatical Towering Inferno buff would want to see 45 minutes of fat?
Inside the Tower: We Remember (8 mins.)
Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, and others talk about working on The Towering Inferno. Breathing the same oxygen as Paul Newman, William Holden, and Fred Astaire seems to be much more exciting to this group than working with fire--the novelty of the film's all-star cast takes up most of the discussion. There's a cute anecdote about Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway's bedroom scene, and Blakely tells us that Steve McQueen demanded that the brim of his fire helmet be heightened, which meant that all the firefighters' helmets had to be changed--an alteration Blakely diplomatically insists improved the film.
Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno (7 mins.)
A shout-out to the special effects crew of The Towering Inferno, somewhat unnecessary in light of the two scene-specific commentaries on Disc 1. We do get to see Irwin Allen say, "There's no false sense of humility here, I'm not a humble man," and some archival making-of footage featuring a hella-creepy white fire mask.
The Art of Towering (5 mins.)
A shout-out to the storyboard artists, who probably deserve a shout-out as Allen always heavily storyboarded his action sequences. We learn that the storyboards helped to inform the screenplay and the screenplay helped to inform the storyboards, indicating that the film was both very much a collaborative effort and a soulless studio product. I'm an auteur-drunk film buff and still don't believe in filmmaking-by-committee.
Irwin Allen: The Great Producer (6 mins.)
Hilariously but lovingly cruel. Possibly intended to be simultaneously released on The Poseidon Adventure's Special Edition; Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowell are interviewed along with the cast of The Towering Inferno to dish on Allen. They're fascinated with his hair, which they regard as a carefully but brilliantly executed combover. Chamberlain, who also slips in a crack about Allen's universally reviled The Swarm, muses, "He had a full head of hair, but he didn't." Stevens recalls that Allen once invited her out to lunch and was shocked when he took her to Jack in the Box. She refused to eat there because she was a vegetarian and later found out from Allen's wife that Jack in the Box was his favourite restaurant and was likely deeply offended that she rejected the gesture.
Directing the Inferno (4 mins.) details the film's odd directorial arrangement. Allen wanted to direct the film himself but the studio forced him to hire Guillermin as they deemed him too inexperienced to go it alone. The cast didn't mind having two directors, but it was a bit of a pain in the ass for the crew, who hated having to shift gears. I love how Richard Chamberlain doesn't think he's famous. He remembers watching Paul Newman battle with Guillermin and realizing that Newman picks fights with all his directors in order to warm up as though he were a bit player studying how the big stars work. There's no false modesty, as Allen would say: he's genuinely starstruck by Newman.
Putting Out Fire (5 mins.)
All about fire! Irwin Allen was scared of it, but always demanded more. He says in the first shot that water can be controlled, but once you start a fire you have to constantly watch it. There's a good anecdote about how Steve McQueen discovered an actual fire on one of the sets in the studio and enthusiastically investigated it to learn more about his role.
Running on Fire (6 mins.)
A shout-out to the stunt performers and coordinators of the film. Like "Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno", it's fairly repetitive in light of the scene-specific commentary on Disc 1. For example, we're told again that it hurts like hell to be hit by water and that Steve McQueen performed his own stunts at of course great risk to the production, as you can't replace Steve McQueen. Still, it's worth watching just to see the stunt performers wearing those hella-creepy fire masks; they look like the interrogators at the end of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
Still the World's Tallest Building (8 mins.)
Produced independently and atonal in a similar way as "The R.M.S. Queen Mary" featurette on the Poseidon Adventure DVD. It's kind of odd, scored and narrated like the kind of corporate video you would imagine running on a loop inside the film's glass tower. F.X. Feeney says that Irwin Allen had actually set the film a few years in the future, and indeed "Still the World's Tallest Building" feels a bit like the not-too-distant future as envisioned in 1974. It compares the glass tower featured in The Towering Inferno with some of the world's largest buildings and observes that if it were real it would indeed be the world's largest. The featurette begins with a quote from the Bible describing the Tower of Babel apparently not getting as far as to find out what happened to the Tower of Babel. They don't appear to have seen the Towering Inferno either, considering that that film calls these buildings "deathtraps."
The Writer: Stirling Silliphant (9 mins.)
The exact same featurette included on the Poseidon Adventure Special Edition.
NATO Promotional Reel (11 mins.)
Bizarre. We follow Irwin Allen into his office as he goes into pre-production for The Towering Inferno. Throughout he jokes with the audiences and shows us "movie magic" that involves spontaneously creating a fire and then making it abruptly disappear. At the end, he tells us to look for The Towering Inferno at Christmas of 1974 and in the next couple years to also look for The Walter Syndrome, The Day the World Died, The Circus, and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Of course, only the last one ever got made. If 20th Century Fox commissioned something like this in 1944, it wouldn't feel quite so weird, as we would expect a certain degree of stylization. In 1974, it's difficult to imagine that Allen would think exhibitors that unsophisticated and naïve.
Original 1974 Featurette #1 (8 mins.)
Again, I have a bit of a soft spot for this sort of thing. It's got to be more than the degraded image that makes these archival featurettes look less produced and more spontaneous than the modern behind-the-scenes ones. There's no shortage of hyperbole on display here, as indicated by a narrator who solemnly intones, "It has been suggested that the movie blockbuster is the new art form of the 20th century."
Original 1974 Featurette #2 (7 mins.)
Mostly behind-the-scenes footage of the climactic fire and water battle and either matches or surpasses the actual one in kinetic energy. I wasn't expecting that much sheer adrenaline. We also get to see McQueen joke, "If anything happens to me, Ali gets my truck."
Irwin Allen 1972 Interview (12 mins.)
Surprisingly the only featurette to really plunder it is "Putting on Fire". Probably unnecessary, but there's new material here and it gets a lot of mileage out of that whole "vintage" thing. Allen wasn't joking when he said he wasn't a modest man: several times throughout the interview he brags about how much money his films have made and that despite being nominated for the Academy Award, being told by firefighters that the motion picture The Towering Inferno is the greatest thing to happen for fire safety, and being made an honorary fire chief in over forty countries around the world. The greatest reward for making these movies is the money.
A teaser for The Towering Inferno, trailers for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, three AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER articles, five photo galleries, and storyboard comparisons for six key sequences round out the platter.
Universal's anamorphic 2.39:1 transfer of Earthquake is surprisingly clean and potent but retains all the chintz that Fox toned down in their releases, instantly dating the film as a 1974 release. (Too, there's an overzealous amount of edge-enhancement, turning the intricate matte paintings into a bit of an eyesore.) In an attempt towards fidelity to the theatrical presentation, the film is offered in "Sensurround" (a.k.a. Dolby Digital 3.1) so that you can actually feel the tremors beneath you. I suspect this option was recorded deliberately low, necessitating a boost in volume that will therefore amplify the rumble effect. No matter though, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is fantastic as is and I found myself still feeling some good vibrations when played normally. There are no extras, not even a trailer--which is fine by me, as this little review is novel-length already. The disc has chapter stops but there's no menu listing for them. Originally published: June 5, 2006.