Monday, March 24, 2014

The Towering Inferno


Oh my. I had a rather eventful weekend in Salina, Utah, where I performed my Sink For Your Supper concert with the Polygamy Polyphonic orchestra. My flight and arrival went off without a hitch. All one hundred and thirty seven members of the Young family met me at the airport and carried me to the Salina symphonic hall in high style. I just had time to change clothes twice before Hiram Young, the head of the family, arrived and proposed marriage. I patiently explained that I would always be true to Norman; Hiram, however, didn't seem to think that an extant spouse should be any impediment. I finally had to drive a Fendi spike heel into his gluteus maximus to get him out of my dressing room so I could change for the concert.

Those members of the Young family who played in the orchestra provided a wonderful musical accompaniment to my thrilling vibrato as I rode my motorized iceberg around the stage singing those old favorites, It Was Sad When The Great Ship Went Down and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald . As I have related before, orchestra policy forbade my usual finale where my skirts head downstage while I remain up. Therefore, during the grand finale of My Heart Will Go On , my manager, Joseph, made arrangements for 'Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots' to enter in a kick line from the wings wearing headdresses of live sparklers and holding Roman candles. All the while, flash pots went off behind me from the top of my iceberg. It should have been an impressive effect. Unfortunately, the aim of four year olds with Roman candles is less than perfect and soon I was dodging fireballs left right and sideways while other miscreant children sent theirs sailing out into the audience. There was a general stampede for the exits and one especially ill aimed fireball, landed on the top of my head. My lacquered hairdo went up rapidly, but I, fortunately, had the presence of mind to dump my water carafe over myself to extinguish the flames before I suffered any serious burns. I finished the song without missing a note, even though most of the string section had fled the stage and the woodwinds had taken cover behind the larger percussion instruments.

I decided it was prudent to leave the three alarm fire raging in the symphony hall behind and quietly took a convenient taxi back to the airport There, in the ladies lounge, I was able to take stock of the damage. Much of my hair had been singed to crew cut length and my scalp and face were somewhat pinker than usual, but no blisters or other skin disasters seemed in the offing. I fashioned a turban out of a 'Souvenir of Salina' beach towel, put on a very large set of Raybans, and looked fairly presentable on the journey home.

Once home, and reunited with Norman who appeared to have slept the entire time I was out, I decided to gain fortitude by seeing how others have coped with fiery disaster in their lives, so I plopped Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno into the home theater while I massaged my face with honeydew/cucumber beauty gel. The Towering Inferno was Allen's follow-up to his hugely successful The Poseidon Adventure , only this time; his all-star cast was trapped in a flaming skyscraper. Like the previous film, it was based on a successful pulp novel, only this time, rather than a unified vision, two different burning building novels; Richard Martin Stern's The Tower and Scortia & Robinson's The Glass Inferno were combined. One was under development at Warner Brothers and the other at 20th Century Fox. Rather than two competing projects like we would have today ( Deep Impact and Armageddon or Volcano and Dante's Peak anyone?), Allen persuaded the suits to put all the eggs in a single basket. Screenwriter Stirling Siliphant took characters and situations from both stories and loosely bound them together into an episodic drama.

Paul Newman stars as world famous architect Doug Roberts, who returns to San Francisco for the opening of his masterpiece, the Glass Tower, a 135 story building. He works for William Holden, the developer, who has come up with the novel concept of installing a bedroom in every office suite. Paul wastes no time in bedding his girlfriend, Faye Dunaway, but soon, he discovers the electrical subcontractor, Holden's slimy son-in-law (Richard Chamberlin), has used substandard wiring. Newman is soon running all over the building opening electrical panels and looking constipated. As it's the opening of the building, there's a gala party in the obligatory restaurant on the top floor and most of the cast is soon boogieing to the strains of an uncredited Maureen McGovern who sings a song that makes The Morning After seem like a Bach Cantata. Robert Vaughan is on hand as a senator. Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones show up as the aging stars that generate pathos. Robert Wagner, as the development firm's publicist, makes a detour on his way to the party to score with his secretary in another one of those handy office bedrooms.

But wait, Chamberlin's cheap wiring suffers an overload when all the lights are turned on for the partygoers and soon fuse boxes are bursting into flames and smoke seeps into the corridors. Our other big star, Steve McQueen, turns up at this point as the fire chief who has to figure out how to fight a fire eighty plus floors up and how to get the dancing dummies in the roof garden down, especially once the fire starts to invade the elevator shafts. I won't spoil the suspense by telling you who lives and who dies, but there's two hours of running up and down exploding stairwells, falling from high windows, failed helicopter rescue attempts, a breeches buoy over a thousand feet above street level, climbing up and down elevator and pipe shafts, and exploding water tanks, amongst other devices.

The action sequences hold up and are pretty marvelous, especially when you consider that this was before CGI, green screens, and digital effects. Most of what you see is stunt men really doing their stuff and the flames are, at times, terrifyingly real. There is also a reasonable amount of suspense in the construction of the film. You do wonder how McQueen and the other firemen are going to get those people down and, as plan after plan goes up in flames, I found myself wondering how I'd react if trapped in similar circumstances.

On the other hand, most of the drama is pretty silly. The Poseidon Adventure works because we are quickly introduced to a band of disparate folks and we stay with them as they make their journey up into the light. It's kind of like Survivor but with real nasty consequences at being voted off the island. The Towering Inferno , on the other hand, casts its net too large. There are stories going on all over the building and there are too many supporting cast coming and going for us to get to know them as anything other than types. There was a semblance of character in The Poseidon Adventure ; here there are just quick caricature sketches. Steve McQueen comes off best because all he has to do is play the disinterested professional. He has a job to do and he's going to do it. All the others are caught up in a web of underdeveloped familial and romantic relationships that have zero depth so, when they're sundered by disaster, we don't care at all. We just tick them off one by one on our fingers as they make ashes of themselves.

Richard Chamberlin gets in some good moments as the villain. Faye Dunaway is a complete non-entity, despite fourth billing. Her most salient feature is her décolletage. William Holden is poured into the world's ugliest dinner jacket and tries to give gravitas to the situation but it's way beyond his abilities to salvage. If you look quickly, you'll even see a young Dabney Coleman as a fire fighter. Paul Newman does most of the running around in this film but, frankly, he looks like he'd rather be on some other set.

Irwin Allen directed the action sequences but John Guillermin handled the drama...badly. The film appears to have been shot in that flat 70s style of Quinn Martin TV dramas. I kept expecting an announcer to say Act I, Act II etc. ad nauseam. It isn't helped by the world's most hideous production design which runs riot with all the worst in mid-seventies color schemes and furniture styles. At least the production had the good taste to burn most of the sets down. The party room, all fairy lights and wrought iron and fake orange trees, isn't too bad but then they filled it with extras in really bad evening dress. The pink satin pup tent on the Mayor's wife really has to be seen to be believed.

I'm on the ropes as to whether to recommend this one or not. I've finally decided to give it a lukewarm thumbs up in honor of the stunt men and women who really did a great job in the name of entertainment.

Big gold scissors. Gratuitous  Brady Bunch cast member. Fornicator flambé. Falling fornicatrix. Fake stock certificates. Gratuitous double murderer. Dangling elevator. Exploding helicopter. Navy brass. Window shattering. Unexplained final rescue.

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