20 April 2012

The Towering Inferno - An Appreciation

The so-called "disaster" movie has been with us since virtually the beginning of film -- one of the earliest examples being "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1913). Humans have always tried to contain things they could not understand in pictures, then words, then moving images. Disasters -- like so much of the natural world that was not understandable -- might be understood if only they could be contained and reduced to a more human scale.

Over the years, disasters have gotten larger -- both in real life and in media depictions. At the time, who in America could have imagined a disaster bigger than the San Francisco earthquake (1906)? It was unfathomable to the people who experienced it and even harder to understand for those who did not. It was eclipsed by the sinking of the Titanic (1912) which was surpassed by the great Mississippi flood (1927) which was surpassed by the Long Beach earthquake (1933), then the Johnstown Flood (1936), the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the super tornado outbreak (1974) and on, until the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 and the Japanese earthquake in 2011.

Real disasters are scary. They put us on edge because they are (usually) unexpected.  We didn't know they were going to happen and, so, don't know when the next one will occur.  Putting disasters on film achieves two purposes: it shows people what happened (in the case of real events) and what could happen (in fictional events); and provides some idea of how we can cope with them when they do occur.

I have long been a fan of disaster movies. I got into them because of my love of special effects -- the "old school" kind of practical effects: models, hanging miniatures, matte paintings and sets constructed to come apart (as opposed to the new school where everything is done with computer graphics). I am amazed not only by the effect achieved on the screen, but also by the fact that something so believable (usually) could be achieved with a bunch of fakery. Clearly, lots of hard work went into making the sets for  "San Francisco" (1936) that came apart and fell around the actors. Pretty impressive stuff for 1936.

My love for disaster movies came to a peak right around the time that Hollywood was turning out some of the best examples ever of the genre: the 1970s.

First, there was "Airport" (1970). I am still impressed all these years later by the scene where the bomb explodes in the bathroom. It's so believable. That was followed by "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) with its amazing scene of the ballroom turning upside down.  If you ever get the chance, you should watch the "making of" that came out around the time of the movie. Those are real people falling from real upside down tables. Stunt people really deserve more respect than they get. "Earthquake" (1974) was next.  It's pretty laughable now, but I was scared when I sat in the Bethany Theater in Phoenix specially equipped with "Sensaround" that made the seats and floor vibrate when the earthquake occurred.  (I've been in several earthquakes since; "Sensaround" didn't come close to the real thing.)

One month after "Earthquake" opened, came "The Towering Inferno" -- what I consider the quintessential example of a disaster movie.

"The Towering Inferno" has everything:  great idea (tallest building in the world catches fire), set in a gorgeous city (San Francisco), populated with beautiful people (Paul Newman!) with a script that is actually plausible (cheap wiring causes fire on the night of the big opening party). All of the cast deliver excellent performances from the pitiable Fred Astaire and doomed Jennifer Jones, to the smarmy Richard Chamberlain and the dense-as-a-brick William Holden. Even model-turned-actor Susan Blakely hits a believable note.

Then you have the super special effects: the huge "miniatures" of the main building (70 feet tall!), the believable fire shots (especially the elevator that accidentally opens onto a fire floor), the passengers imperiled in the outdoor hanging elevator, the cascading water at the end.

Add to that the excellent production design (by William Creber; see photographs), the costumes (Paul Zastupnevich), editing (Carl Kress and Harold F. Kress), photography (Fred Koenekamp) and score (by John Williams -- easily the best of all his work) and you have nearly the perfect film.

Another reason I love this movie could be that I moved to San Francisco about five years after I saw it in the cinema. San Francisco was everything I thought it would be. It was totally cool walking into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero and realizing it had been used for the main lobby in "The Towering Inferno" -- complete with hanging elevators! That was a surreal experience.

I whole-heartedly suggest you rent or buy "The Towering Inferno" to see an excellent example of the disaster genre.  I also suggest the following disaster films:

San Francisco (1936)
Things to Come (1936)
The Hurricane (1937
In Old Chicago (1937)
The Rains Came (1939)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The High and the Mighty (1954)
The Birds (1961)
Airport (1970)
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Earthquake (1974)
The Hindenburg (1975)

You can read and see more about the special effects used in "The Towering Inferno" here and here.


Zee Jai said...

Excellent piece - it's bizarre how this legendary picture has been kind of forgotten now, thanks to the damage done to the "genre" by really bad pictures. The Towering Inferno really was its peak - Earthquake is a horrible movie!

The Birds is an odd inclusion in your list - what's the thinking there?

Christopher said...

Hello and thank you for your comment!

I included "The Birds" because it's something of a disaster pic (natural rather than man made); and the elements of the story are quintessential for the formula: innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time must overcome odds to survive -- some do and some don't.

In addition, I think it really a great "what if?" story along the lines of "what if the building catches fire?" or "what if the boat hits an ice berg?" or "what if that asteroid hits the planet?"

Zee Jai said...

Ah ha! That makes sense. I hadn't really thought of The Birds in that way before.

I've seen The Towering Inferno countless times now (I probably watch it a couple of times a year!) and I'm always pleased to see it getting props.

Jonathan Jones said...

The greatest disaster epic of them all now with its own Facebook making of page