Saturday, September 27, 2008
Movie Time: Rewind: The Towering Inferno
Today is a sad day, marking the death of one of Hollywood's last great classic actors, Paul Newman, who died of cancer at the age of 83. Newman was the first breakout actor of the late 1950's and early 60's. A particularly turbulent time in Hollywood. The old studio ways were dying with the popularization of television, and more and more actors were working freelance, moving from studio to studio and setting up their own production companies to make their own pictures. The old garde of Hollywood were also fading out, stars like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and the like were fading out at the box office.
Hollywood had to start creating new actors to take their place as big box office draws, and that is what brings us to Paul Newman. Breaking out in the late 50's, Newman, along with Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen a little later, set about making a new type of Hollywood. Full of young, brash characters that displayed emotion and action. New faces for a new decade.
To be totally honest, I have never been a big fan of Newman, preferring the edginess of McQueen or the method acting of Brando to be truthful. That doesn't mean I don't respect Newman, both as a humanitarian and as an actor. In his honor I wanted to dedicate this month's Rewind to my favorite Newman film, The Towering Inferno.
Newman made so many classic films, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Slap Shot, but for obvious reason I would think that The Towering Inferno would be my choice. One, it co-stars Steve McQueen. It also features a veritable who's who of great actors, including Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, and the always excellent William Holden. Two, it is the first big budget action movie, the sort of summer blockbuster.
Made in 1974, 2 years after the Poseidon Adventure and 1 year before JAWS, I think it raises the bar in terms of what you expect at the movies. The Poseidon Adventure has all of the elements of a summer blockbuster disaster film except the cast. The Towering Inferno stars the two biggest movie stars of the 1960's and 1970's, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. JAWS a year later by many is considered the first summer blockbuster, but for my money The Towering Inferno has it beat by a year.
The story is actually based on two books, both disaster skyscraper novels, called The Glass Inferno and The Tower. Producer Irwin Allen, having been successful with The Poseidon Adventure, approached both Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, each of whom had the rights to one of the books and proposed a joint venture. Instead of flooding the market with two of the same movies, they would split the profits and proceeds and combine the two. The studios agreed, and Allen and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant took the main characters and concepts from each book and combined them.
The movie starts out with the return of Paul Newman from vacation, he is the architect that designed the building and has discovered that several shortcuts were taken in the construction of his building, specifically in terms of fire safety. The chief electrical engineer, played by Richard Chamberlain, insists that it is up to the minimum code, failing to tell Newman that the building financier, played by William Holden, has directed him to do so.
Turning on all the lights to highlight the building magnificence to the visiting dignitaries on opening night exacerbates the faulty electrical system causing a fire in a utility room that quickly spreads. Even after the fire is reported, Holden orders the party to continue insisting that it is safe, but it is soon out of control.
By the time the fire department arrives, led by McQueen, the guests are cut off and the fire is blazing over several floors, between the ground team and the party goers up top. McQueen and Newman battle to save the frighten guests through a variety of rescue attempts, including helicopter rescues and running a line between two buildings and guiding guests across a rope line. Eventually McQueen and Newman launch a desperate plan to blow a gigantic water tank on the roof, which should cull the fire but may also kill many of the people still trapped a top.
McQueen was fiercely competitive with Newman before this picture went underway. Many people considered Newman the better actor and he drew bigger paydays. For this film, they got equal billings and the same amount of lines in the script. McQueen wanted to prove that he was the better actor. McQueen arguably had the better part in terms of action, but Newman works better as the architect. The two originally were to have teamed up in 1969 in Butch Cassiday with McQueen as Sundance, but McQueen withdrew over on screen billing.
What I love about this film is the drama going on behind the scenes. McQueen trying to prove he is the better actor, and Newman proving why he is the more mature one. Each actor owns the screen and despite all the pre-filming tensions, many report that the two got along quite well during filming. It shows why Newman is so respected by managing to shine alongside an actor like McQueen who is notoriously hard to work with.
The effects are also pretty good for the 70's. The actors had real fire on set, and the sheer spectacle of the movie is huge. The movie was huge when it was released, allowing McQueen to take a 4 year sabbatical from film, and spurning Newman onto legendary status.
I know many people will spurn my choice of Newman films as not a true Newman film, but I feel honestly is the best policy. This is the only Newman film I have ever re-watched, and while I liked the Hustler, I was never a Newman guy. I am of the opinion that Newman and McQueen are like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, you can like both but you always like one a little more. It just doesn't mean that both weren't great.
Do yourself a favor, pick up a Newman film, either The Towering Inferno or one of the others I mentioned. Great films should be remembered.
End of Line.