The Guest Spot

As the world's tallest building officially opens in Dubai, actor, writer, and occasional ka-os|theory contributor TheatreMad87 takes a look back at one night in 1974, when one tiny spark became a night of blazing suspense in the world's newest, tallest building: the Glass Tower...

The Disaster Paradigm

There are three main reasons why I don’t like blockbusters: -

1) The plots are thin and uninteresting.
2) The dialogue demands nothing of its actors, who usually turn in the poorest of performances.
3) The budget becomes the raison d’être for the entire project.

There is usually another reason why I’m not so keen on the demi-genre: star casting. As if it weren’t intolerable enough to have to sit through a lengthy series of images depicting major cities being destroyed by malign aliens, or heavily biased revisions of historical events in favour of the United States’ version of the stories, we must also be subjected to the opportunity for the so-called great and good of Hollywood to stretch their vanity muscles and remind us of why they are there in the first place. I’ve yet to receive an adequate explanation for why I was asked to pay money which could have gone to charity to watch Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor delivering some of the worst dialogue in film history (I’m including porn).

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I have almost no unfavourable criticism for Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot: which I find even more surprising, since I’m not a great fan of comic book adaptations, either. Although these beacons of light shine out so much greater for the darkness which surrounds them, there are so very few that the word “relief” does not come close to describing the feeling when one comes across a half-decently packaged blockbuster which could work as a good film in its own right, which is exactly what I experienced during and after watching The Towering Inferno, released in 1974.

This is even more dazzling a realisation when considering that The Towering Inferno is not only one of the first major exponents of the Blockbuster – and specifically the Disaster Movie genre – but is in my humble opinion a fantastically gripping film which pumps out strong performances from an ensemble cast of contemporary stars. On paper, I should have hated the film – and I must admit to slightly dreading the three hour ordeal I was expecting – but about two hours into the film, I remember saying aloud how much I was enjoying it. The Towering Inferno has all I ask for in a work of dramatic art: a simple yet engaging idea tightly plotted and performed to near selfless precision by almost the entire cast.

I find it hard to conceive how a cast composed of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, and (believe it or not) Fred Astaire and O. J. Simpson could be anything other than a preening, parading mess of ego rivalry. The script, however, is cleverly crafted to ensure that only an ensemble attitude could be employed to create a believable set of characters. With most of the above mentioned actors sharing their scenes with one or two of the others at any one time, when the large groups are assembled, none of the stars are able to take over or chew the scenery. The situation around which the drama is plotted is too urgent for any of the big name actors to be narcissistic with their performances. McQueen and Newman are effortlessly watchable in every one of their scenes, and their electricity bristles when they play opposite each other. The two are also perfectly cast: Newman’s architect of the eponymous setting for the disaster is a suitable mix of righteous indignation and heroic willingness to sacrifice his creation for the good of saving lives; just as McQueen’s San Francisco Fire Department Chief seems to have been written for his stoic, surly and no-nonsense image. Similarly, yet on a far less glitzy scale, William Holden and Richard Chamberlain create an excellent antithetical on-screen partnership: where McQueen and Newman are a valiant team, Holden and Chamberlain present us with the worst petty rivalry possible, with Chamberlain’s spineless and vicious character serving as an ugly bitchy foil to Holden’s regretful yet self-righteous pomposity. Remarkably, Faye Dunaway, as Newman’s girlfriend, has little to do in this piece, while Fred Astaire’s relatively minor role shines precisely because he does little more than simply play the retiring con-man caught up in a situation which demands an opportunity for him to show his true courage. Special mention must also go to Jennifer Jones, in her final screen role before an untimely death, who is arguably the most active female character in the entire film, both in terms of her brave decisions, risking her life to save children, pets and other trapped residents, as well as getting the lion’s share of the action scenes. It is sadly ironic to see such a brave character come to such a sticky end, especially when the actress’ own tragic life is considered.

Finally, kudos must be given to Stirling Silliphant, who wrote the screenplay. Although there are the unavoidable clichés which appear throughout the film, Silliphant must be forgiven on two counts for these flaws: first, they only occur very rarely; and second, none of these moments are gratuitously or even explicitly sentimental in the same way that later disaster films such as the 2005 War of the Worlds remake or 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. The plotting is surprisingly tight, considering how long the film is, and I was held captive throughout, genuinely gripped as the disaster was set up, unfolded, developed, worsened, changed course, and was finally resolved. Even in the final ten minutes of the film, moments of suspense were continually being fed, as characters searched for each other, and the horrible realisation of the extent of the damage to the city and its inhabitants’ lives dawned on the characters and the audience alike. Newman and McQueen’s final section of dialogue, in which the two vow to prevent anything similar from ever happening again, offers the viewer a kind of hope and optimism which reconciles the human endeavour to build and grow with the practical fear of disaster. Another strength this film has over many more cynical modern blockbusters.

Ultimately, whatever its effect, The Towering Inferno is in its essence yet another big showy blockbuster, but it is one with a heart. A film which gets the message across to its audience that frightening consequences are an inevitable result of hubristic pride and disregard for safety and it manages to tell this story very well, with an obviously clear commitment to that objective. Put simply, The Towering Inferno is rightly termed a classic, and is rollickingly enjoyable film to boot.

TheatreMad87 began performing in the theatre from the age of thirteen in amateur school and university theatre productions. Over the last ten years he has played a variety of both classic and modern roles and finally began his professional training as an actor at one of the world's most renowned Drama Schools in London in September 2010. His interests include history, politics, philosophy, literature, science, social and current affairs, all of which are harnessed and explored through his artistic pursuits. His blog, An Actor's Journal, hopes to offer some of his experiences as a young man attempting to grow and learn while forging a career in one of the most difficult professions in existence.

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Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it is one of the classics. I also think that the Poseidon Adventure at the time it came out got a lot of admiration.
Great post


Zee Jai said...

I'm a big fan of The Poseidon Adventure too - but Inferno is the big one, and the genre was all downhill after this: Earthquake is a terrible movie, and When Time Ran Out is almost unwatchable.

kyle said...

jennifer jones' tragic life? she lived till 90 and died in 2009 spending the last decades of her life as a philanthropist giving her deceased husband Norton Simon's money away.

Zee Jai said...

@Kyle: I think our reviewer is referring to her suicide attempt in the '60s, the suicide of her daughter in 1976, and her battle with breast cancer. All fairly tragic stuff, I'd say!

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