Disaster Movies: The Poseidon Adventure

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Greetings, readers! I hope you’re all having a splendid holiday season. This week I’m bringing you another installment of my spotlight on disaster movies. This week’s selection is my favorite disaster movie: The Poseidon Adventure. Over the top melodrama, preposterous dialogue, and a fantastic cast make this one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. It’s become a tradition of mine to watch it on New Year;s Eve.

The plot involves passengers trying to escape a capsized ocean liner. In a way it was the Titanic of its day, in terms of the effects being groundbreaking and the drama taking place on a doomed ship.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the SS Poseidon is struck by a 90-foot tidal wave and is capsized. Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) leads nine survivors. There is an elderly couple, Manny (Jack Albertson) and Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters), headed to Israel to see their grandson; a New York detective and his ex-prostitute wife, Mike (Ernest Borgnine) and Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens) on their second honeymoon to Italy; a young brother and sister, Robin (Eric Shea) and Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) Shelby going to meet their parents in Greece; A haberdasher James Martin (Red Buttons); a pop singer, Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), and a waiter from the ship (Roddy McDowall), They travel from the grand ballroom struggling through, steam, fire and rising water in the upside-down ship to reach the bottom (the propeller shaft), now the top.–IMDB

One of the great things about The Poseidon Adventure is that it showcases the special effects without overshadowing the actors. Granted, there are some laughable plot twists (the revelation of Belle being a former competitive swimmer at a very convenient time is a great example). But we are always invested in the struggle of the survivors to get to safety. That’s one of the hallmarks of a great disaster movie. The fire and steam wouldn’t mean anything if they didn’t put people we were emotionally invested in in peril.

The special effects of The Poseidon Adventure are not the only reason to see this movie. But boy are they ever impressive! The whole sequence where the ship capsizes is jaw-dropping. It may not look as slick as the scene in Titanic where the ship gets struck by the iceberg. But it’s pretty close. The moment when the ship’s dining room becomes flooded is pretty spectacular as well. Then there’s the special effects and stunt work on display when (spoiler alert!) the Roddy McDowall character falls to his death as the survivors attempt to escape via finding the engine room. The visual effects team won a special achievement award for good reason.

The Poseidon Adventure is the type of movie where actors could easily go over the top. There are overdone moments (Hackman’s rant against God, for example). But it never gets to the point of being campy. The cast is too talented for that. Of the cast, my favorite performance is the one by Ernest Borgnine. To this day I don’t think he gets enough credit as a dramatic actor. If you want to see why I regard him so highly, see his performance in Marty, for which he won an Oscar. I wish he had gotten more material like that. But I digress.

If you want a good disaster epic with some of your favorite actors, The Poseidon Adventure is a must. The effects are great, the cast is top-notch, and it has some riveting action sequences. For my money, it’s the best disaster film of the 1970s.

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Disaster Movies: Earthquake

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It’s week three of my spotlight on disaster movies. I’ve covered Airport and The Towering Inferno. Now it’s time for a film about a natural disaster: Earthquake. Some of you may know the film from the ride it inspired at Universal Studios (one that I miss). But, let’s talk about the movie, shall we? It has a stellar cast led by Charlton Heston.

As you can probably guess from the title, it depicts an earthquake and its aftermath. But it also involves a lot of human melodrama.

Construction Engineer Stuart Graff (Charlton Heston) is estranged from his jealously possessive wife, Remy (Ava Gardner), and has an affair with Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), the widow of a co-worker. Meanwhile, Remy tries to persuade her father, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), who is Stuart’s employer, to use his influence to stop Stuart from seeing Denise. Rogue policeman Lew Slade (George Kennedy) is suspended from the L.A.P.D. for having punched an obtuse officer from another jurisdiction. Embittered, Slade contemplates quitting the police force. Jody (Marjoe Gortner), a lecherous  grocery store manager, lusts after Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal), sister of Sal (Gabriel Dell), the assistant to Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), an aspiring daredevil motor cyclist. The lives of all these people are devastated when a major earthquake rips through Los Angeles and reduces the city to ruins.–IMDB

Earthquake is part special effects picture and part soap opera, as you can gather from all the overlapping story lines.I have to say that overall the effects part of the picture works much better. The characters are pretty ridiculous, even for a disaster movie. If it weren’t for a gifted cast doing their best with the laughable dialogue the film would be unwatchable. The actors are all to be commended for putting their best foot forward.

There are a few scene-stealers here. I got a kick out of Richard Roundtree as the motor cycle daredevil. Although every time I saw him I expected the Shaft music to start playing, since that film has become so iconic. I also enjoyed George Kennedy as the rogue cop. Kennedy it seems is required to be in these movies. You may remember him from Airport as well. He’s always fun to watch. Last, but certainly not least, I really was happy to see Lorne Greene. I’m a big fan of Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica. Even though this is nowhere near his best role, he brings gravitas to the part and is sort of the glue that holds everything together.

Even though Earthquake has dialogue that is preposterous, its special effects are to be applauded. In fact, the special effects team of Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson, and Albert Whitlock won a special achievement award for the visual effects. When you watch this movie, it does feel like you’re in the middle of an earthquake. The recognition is deserved.

One final note (no pun intended). The score for Earthquake was done by John Williams. It’s solid as always. Sadly it was overlooked at the Oscars. But it’s another worthy entry in Williams‘ body of work. Earthquake is melodramatic, but it’s worth seeing for the actors I gave shout-outs to, as well as the great effects and stunt work.

Disaster Movies: The Towering Inferno

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Greetings, readers! This week I’m continuing my look back at some classic disaster films. When it comes to disaster films, the producer of producers is Irwin Allen. This week I will be discussing his 1974 production The Towering Inferno. It was directed by John Guillermin and features an all-star cast that includes Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, to name a few.

The plot of The Towering Inferno involves a brand new office building catching fire and everyone’s efforts to escape it.

The finishing touches have just been made to the Glass Tower, a 138-story skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. A huge celebratory gala, complete with VIP guests, has been planned to celebrate the dedication of what has been promoted as the world’s tallest building. But the building’s architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), suspects all is not right with the building. The contractors have used shoddy wiring, not the heavy-duty wiring he had specified. The overworked wiring develops short circuits, coincidentally enough during the height of the celebratory extravaganza; it isn’t long before the Glass Tower becomes a huge towering inferno. The nearly 300 guests become trapped on the building’s 135th floor, where the party takes place. Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) immediately devises a daring plan to rescue the trapped guests, but his efforts quickly become a battle against time and the panicked guests.–IMDB

Like Airport, which I wrote about last week, The Towering Inferno has a pretty simple premise. What makes it fun to watch is its all-star cast, great special effects, and a score by John Williams. Yes, THAT John Williams. The man who is a winner of multiple Oscar-winner scored disaster films early in his career, including most of the ones produced by Irwin Allen.

The Towering Inferno is anchored by Steve McQueen as the fire chief. Even with somewhat clunky dialogue and some truly ridiculous plot points, he is credible. McQueen is convincing as the dedicated fireman. He’s not a pure action hero, as many of McQueen’s characters were. It’s a performance that feels gritty and grounded in reality. Then there’s Paul Newman as the architect of the building. In Newman’s storied career, The Towering Inferno isn’t anywhere near the best roles he ever played. But he brings credibility to the character. Newman’s character is a disillusioned creator in a way. So frustrating when you design something magnificent and then it goes down in flames because people caught corners. Even in the most exaggerated of material, Newman is consummate professional.

There are a few other actors I wish to mention. First,there’s Robert Vaughn as a sleazy senator named Parker. It was fun seeing him in a movie with McQueen again (they previously worked together on the action classic Bullitt). We also get the wonderful William Holden as Jim Duncan, the head of Duncan Enterprises, the architectural/construction empire that built the building. Holden had a long and impressive career like Paul Newman. And even though he isn’t the star of the show, every second he’s onscreen is compelling. Finally, I want to give a shout out to the actor I least expected to see in this movie: Fred Astaire. He sadly doesn’t get to dance in this film. But it’s fun to see him branch out into dramatic territory playing shady businessman Harlee Claiborne. Just seeing him in the movie made me smile.

The other things that stands out about The Towering Inferno are its cinematography and music. The film was photographed by Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph F. Biroc. They won well-deserved Oscars. You can feel the intensity of the flames on the screen and feel the panic of the doomed party attendees in the way closeups are used of their faces. I mentioned earlier that John Williams scored The Towering Inferno. It has some good light music for the earlier celebratory parts of the film. But when things start to hit the fan, Williams delivers some solid action music. I would encourage you to go online and listen to it. One of the reasons Williams has lasted so long is that he can compose for basically any genre. When you can score Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can, and Star Wars, that is range.

The Towering Inferno is overly melodramatic at times. But it’s never boring. Come for the cast, stay for the special effects and John Williams’ score.

Disaster Films: Airport

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Well, 2017 is almost over. For the last month of the year I thought I’d write about disaster films. I’m not sure why, but I always end up watching at least one on New Year’s Eve. It dates back to one year a dear friend and I decided to have pizza and watch The Poseidon Adventure to ring in the new year. I’ll write about that one later. The disaster film is a genre where you usually find great special effects, thin plot lines, and a roll call of A-list celebrities. To kick things off, I figured I’d start with the film that started it all: Airport.

The plot of Airport revolves around the personnel and passengers at one airport over the span of twelve hours.

Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the hard-charging manager of Lincoln International Airport, trying to keep his airport open despite a raging Midwestern snowstorm and an angry wife. Meanwhile, his antagonistic brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), may have his plans for a placid layover in Italy disturbed by unexpected news from Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), and by the plans of D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), the loose cannon on board.–IMDB

Airport was based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey. While there’s a lot going on, the screenplay never feels overwhelmed by all the stories it has to tell. No wonder screenwriter George Seaton received an Oscar nomination. The film was actually nominated for a handful of Oscars an won one: Helen Hayes for best supporting actress. Unlike many of the films that it inspired, Airport even garnered a nomination for Best Picture.

I want to mention one reason that Airport has a special place in my heart. It was filmed mostly at an airport that I pass through frequently. As IMDB notes,

The field and terminal scenes were filmed entirely at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport due to the abundance of snowfall during the winter months there, although at first the film’s producers were forced to use bleached sawdust as a supplement, to make up for the lack of falling snow, until a snowstorm hit the Twin Cities area during the production of the film.–IMDB

A great deal of my travel memories involve the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Well, at least at the beginning. Nothing says fun quite like a plane delay because they have to de-ice the wings. Getting there is half the fun, or so they say. But I digress.

Airport, as I alluded to earlier, features a roll call of big name stars of the time. Among them are: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin (in his final film role), and ubiquitous character actor George Kennedy. Also in the cast is Dana Wynter, an actress I think gets overlooked far too often. I don’t want to put together a laundry list of all the story lines that unfold in the film’s nearly 2 1/2 hour running time. But everyone gets a fair amount of screen time. But the one who will steal your heart is Helen Hayes as an airplane stow away. She deserved her Oscar.

The film works not only because of its talented cast and the fascinating real-life drama of the various characters, but because the source of the other drama comes from real things that cause problems at airports. There are airplane fuel problems, frozen runways, equipment malfunctions, etc. It feels like it could all happen in real-life. You’re with the characters in their situations every step of the way.

Airport no doubt feels silly to modern audiences. Part of this is likely because the film and its sequels were brilliantly lampooned in Airplane!. But the original material is worth seeing for its A-list cast, well-written screenplay, and for the great shots of Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. And if you watch it, you’ll get even more of the jokes in Airplane!.