The Roof is on Fire: A Treatise on The Towering Inferno
Welcome, Bleat readers. When you're done with this post, you might enjoy today's installment in the disaster series, in which I take on Earthquake.
[Part I in a series on disaster movies]
Yesterday, James Lileks wrote something that struck a nerve. It was as if his hand reached all the way from Minnesota to New York and slapped me right where my film aesthetics lie.
And now back to the Towering Inferno, which just sucks.
Maybe we just have to define our meaning of the word disaster. See, there's disaster as in so bad that anyone who worked on this movie should never be allowed to work in the film industry again (see Uwe Boll). And there's disaster, as in Death! Destruction! Former A-list actors emoting! Special effects gone wild! One cannot apply the word sucks to the latter.
I'll admit it. The Towering Inferno does, in a small way, fit both categories. The dialogue was cheesy. The special effects elicited laughter. And, thanks to my fireman father, I can recite from memory the litany of things they just got wrong in regards to fighting fires.
So what does Inferno have going for it, then? Simple. The 1970's were the heyday of the disaster genre and Inferno - even though it wasn't the first of its kind -paved the way for all other movies like it because of its critical success.
We had our first disaster in 1972, with the Poseiden Adventure. The success of that party cruise gone wrong movie spawned Inferno (also directed by Irwin Allen of Poseidon fame) and Earthquake in 1974, and Airport '75 in, yes, 1975 (the first Aiport movie came out in 1970, but that was so lame as to not count) as well as Swarm ('78) and Meteor ('79). Inferno, Earthquake and Poseiden formed the Earth, Water and Fire trifecta of 72/74 (Wind didn't make an appearance until the 90's with Twister, unless you count Wizard of Oz).
The Big Three of disaster flicks had similar threads running throug them: children in peril, clandestine love affairs and what would become the staple of all disaster movies - the greed/laziness/evilness of man. After all three of this movies, the viewer is left thinking, is nature our enemy or is progress our enemy? Or, are we our own worst enemy?
No, not really. I think I might be the only person who went off on a philosophical/sociological bent after watching these films. And I was only ten when Poseidon came out. Most people, after watching any of the films, were left thinking, holy shit, the cheese in that movie could feed an army of mice or, did you see when that boulder bounced off the actor's head?
This is why Inferno rules above all other disaster flicks. It's not just about the fire. Sure, there are people to rescue, flames to douse, love to be rekindled (no pun intended). But there's a message, too. A deep, resounding message that is made quite clear when Steve McQueen as Chief O'Halloran says:
Now, you know we don't have a sure way to fight a fire over the seventh floor, but you just keep building 'em higher and higher.
Damn you and your filthy progress!
Another choice quote from the Chief:
You know we got lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. Someday your gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'll keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them.
See? If you think this movie is just about burning people falling out of glass elevators and cheating husbands incinerating themselves so no one finds them dead in the arms of their lover, you're missing out on the meat and potatoes. It's the classic battle of man v. man, when one man is the good public servant and the other man is the evil, greedy bastard who just wants to make his money, damn humanity. But, of course, in the end the evil man either gets his comeuppance or he realizes the error of his ways and crawls on his hands and knees to Steve McQueen or Charlton Heston, begging to be shown how to make things right. So he doesn't go to hell, of course.
I'm not making my case, I know. Ok, you know why Towering Inferno doesn't suck? What other movie can boast numerous deaths and Fred Astaire? Fred was nominated for an Oscar for this role! Earthquake may have Victoria Principal's boobs and Sensurround and Poseidon Adventure may have Shelly Winters's deathly water ballet, but Inferno has a Brady kid and O.J. Simpson.
And really, it's riveting in the way few movies are, because it works on so many levels. You have the inter personal stories involving love, greed and corruption. You have impending doom, certain death and explosions. All this is combined with dialogue served with so much fromage, it's like the Atkins platter of movies.
James Duncan: Senator Parker is flying in from Washington tonight for the dedication ceremony. He's almost guaranteed to sign the Urban Renewal Contract. Do you know what that means? Skyscrapers like this all over the country. You design 'em and I'll build 'em.
Doug Roberts: Don't you think you're suffering from an edifice complex?
I rest my case. How can you not be a sucker for a line like that? Especially when it's spoken by Paul Newman.
A-list actors. Bad dialogue. Unbelievable script. You know, this is nothing different than George Lucas is doing these days, and people stand in line for months to see his movies. At least Inferno didn't pretend to be more important than it was.
If you have never seen this movie, I dare you to watch it and not be riveted. Look past the cliche script and you'll see great cinematography in action, a few good acting turns and a story line that makes the 2 ½ hour viewing time go by in a snap.
Don't listen to Lileks and other naysayers. Earthquakes, tornados and global warming be damned. Astaire, McQueen and Newman make Inferno the greatest disaster movie ever.
Here's your proof:
The Towering Inferno received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Astaire), Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound, Editing, Song ("We May Never Love This Way Again"), and Score. It won three of the awards, for Cinematography, Editing and Song.
What other disaster movie can claim such pedigree?
Next up: My statement in support of Earthquake.