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.

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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!.

Noirvember: D.O.A.

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Greetings, readers! This week is the last of my blog posts for Noirvember 2017. I know. It makes me sad too. But for my last noir film I have chosen a real hidden gem. It’s 1949’s D.O.A. It starts with a shocking opening and then only gets more intense and spectacular from there. It has one of the most compelling narrative arcs in all of noir. It may not be mentioned as a great noir film as often as, say, The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. But it’s essential viewing for anyone who loves the genre.

The film stars Edmond O’ Brien as a man who’s been poisoned, told he has only days to live, and how he tries to find out who did to him and why.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’ Brien) goes off to San Francisco for a week’s holiday. He’s a self-employed accountant and is engaged to his assistant Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton). He checks into the St. Francis Hotel and is soon partying with a group of salesman who are having a party. He ends up at a jive bar where a mysterious stranger switches drinks with him. He awakens the next morning feeling unwell and after having some medical tests is told that he’s been poisoned and there is no cure. He has one week to live. When Paula tells him that a man in Los Angeles had been trying to reach him, he sets off to learn if there might be any connection to his current situation. Unfortunately, the man committed suicide by jumping off his high-rise apartment balcony not long after trying to contact him. He soon learns that some very shady characters are involved but why they might be interested in him is what he really wants to know.–IMDB

D.O.A. gets a great deal of its tension from the almost real-time narrative. Right from the opening we know the stakes are high. The opening credits feature Bigelow walking down a long corridor to see a policeman. The music (composed by the great Dimitri Tiomkin) playing over the credits has an almost march to the gallows feel. And that’s exactly the right tone for the story. The film wastes no time in telling us the plot and involving us in the situation of the Edmond O’ Brien character. He reports his future murder by poisoning to a policeman, and then tells the story in flashbacks. By the way, if the police captain at the beginning looks familiar, it’s because he’s played by prolific character actor Roy Engel. He played Doc. Martin on the hit series Bonanza, among other things. But I digress.

D.O.A. succeeds for a multitude of reasons. The primary one is that Edmond O’ Brien’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. He’s believable as the dogged every man in an impossible situation. He’s convincingly vulnerable when he finds out his medical diagnosis. And he’s a likable yet complex character who we root for every second of the movie. O’ Brien had a long and storied career that included a few other noir classics: White Heat and The Killers. I still think he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor. His performance in D.O.A. is a tour de force.

I also want to give credit to Pamela Britton who plays O’ Brien’s love interest. Her compassion for him feels genuine and it’s heartbreaking knowing how their story line is going to end. Noir is just not the place for happy endings.

Another thing that’s fascinating about D.O.A. is that it was directed by Rudolph Mate. He has 32 directing credits between the big and small screen. But he was primarily known as a cinematographer. Among his impressive cinematography credits are: Foreign Correspondent, The Pride of the Yankees, and Gilda. Mate proves himself to be a solid noir director with D.O.A. It’s a shame he didn’t work more in the genre. But we have many films that look great thanks to his camera skills. So all is not lost.

D.O.A. plays like a real-time crime drama. It’s thoroughly involving and a great example of film noir. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.

That’s a wrap for Noirvember. See you in December!

 

 

 

Noirvember: The Set-Up

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This week it’s time to once again disappear into the shadows and seedy alleys. This week my salute to film noir in honor of Noirvember continues with another favorite film. This week’s selection on the surface is a boxing movie. But it’s so much more than that. It’s The Set-Up from 1949 directed by Robert Wise.

The Set-Up features two gifted, but in my opinion underrated actors, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter. The plot involves boxing, gangsters, and corruption,

Over-the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny (George Tobias) is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from tough gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter)…without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), unaware of what will happen to him if he does.–IMDB

It’s fascinating how The Set-Up manages to weave together the genres of sports and crime in a way that is absolutely fascinating. That’s a credit to director Robert Wise, who I’ll get to shortly. But there are a number of reasons I’ve chosen The Ser-Up.

First of all, even though the film is about much more than boxing, the scenes in the ring are just riveting. You really feel in the ring and can feel the blood and sweat on the camera lens. If the look of the film feels familiar when you see it the first time, it’s likely because it inspired the look of another great boxing movie: Raging Bull. As Internet Movie Database notes:

Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film and was so impressed by the boxing sequences that he had to deliberately avoid copying any of Robert Wise’s camera tricks when it came his turn to make a boxing movie, Raging Bull.

Credit the great look of the boxing scenes, and for that matter, the whole movie, to cinematographer Mlton R. Krasner. Among Krasner’s other credits? All About Eve and How The West Was Won. He had an impressive range.

On top of the great look, another reason The Set-Up is such an effective noir is that it takes place in real-time. It adds to the tension of a crime story. Knowing the clock is ticking just raises the stakes that much higher.

Of course, none of this would make any difference without strong performances from the cast. Robert Ryan in the lead role delivers one of the best performances of his storied career. He’s believable as a boxer, but also as a vulnerable struggling athlete on the downside of his career. The other performance I want to mention is Audrey Totter. I must admit I haven’t become very familiar with her work until recently. But her work in The Set-Up and Lady and the Lake establish her as one of the quintessential film noir actresses.

The film also benefits from a screenplay Art Cohn, working from a poem by Joseph Moncure March. And The Set-Up also wouldn’t be the great movie it is without director Robert Wise at the helm. Wise was one of the most versatile people to ever work in Hollywood. He started out as an editor at RKO Pictures. In fact, one of his editing credits was for a little movie you may have heard of: Citizen Kane. Wise eventually moved up to directing, working early on for legendary horror producer Val Lewton on films such as The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Wise went on to direct the great musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well as the horror masterpiece The Haunting. Wise could direct for any genre. In The Set-Up he shows he has an ability to tell a taut crime story as well as show us a great song and dance number. The world lost a great talent when he passed away in 2005 at the age of 91.

If you like sports movies, The Set-Up is for you. It’s also for you if you enjoy a good, twisted crime story or are fans of Ryan and Totter. It’s just a great movie period. I can’t say enough good things about The Set-Up. It’s as good the first time as it is the 50th time.

 

Noirvember: The Naked City

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Greetings, noiristas! It’s week two of Noirvember, a month devoted to celebrating all things film noir. This week my selection is a film that, on the surface, is merely a police procedural. But its craftsmanship makes into one of the definitive films of the genre. It’s 1948’s The Naked City.

On the surface, the plot is a simple one. Two cops are investigating an apparent suicide. In true noir fashion it turns out to be a murder.

Amid a semi-documentary portrait of New York and its people, Jean Dexter, an attractive blonde model, is murdered in her apartment. Homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) investigate. Suspicion falls on various shifty characters who all prove to have some connection with a string of apartment burglaries. Then a burglar is found dead who once had an elusive partner named Willie. The film ends with a tour de force manhunt.–IMDB

Like I said, it’s pretty routine. Sounds like a Law & Order episode in movie format. In fact, The Naked City paved the way for programs like Law & Order, Hill Street Blues, and many other gritty cop dramas.

What really makes The Naked City a quintessential noir film is its look. The film was shot entirely on location in New York City. That choice gives it a gritty, documentary feel. We really walk the means streets with these detectives and it unfolds like a case being investigated in real-time. The plot twists and turns never feel forced. It’s absolutely compelling from start to finish.

At the heart of the movie are two superb performances by the actors playing the detectives. There’s Barry Fitzgerald as Muldoon. Anyone that has seen a classic movie has no doubt seen Fitzgerald at some point. He was one of the hardest working character actors of the era. You may remember him from his scene-stealing performance in The Quiet Man. And Don Taylor is equally solid as Halloran. The two actors really compliment each other beautifully. Their performances suck us into the investigation.

The director of The Naked City, Jules Dassin, is no stranger to noir. He also directed the noir masterpiece Rififi (one of the best of all heist films), Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. All are great ways to introduce yourself to the genre.

The Naked City won an Oscar for William H. Daniels’ brilliant black and white cinematography. The editing by Paul Weatherwax and writing by Marvin Wald also were nominated. When you see this film you’ll understand quickly why all three were recognized. As far as crime movies go, they don’t get much better than The Naked City.

Noirvember: Cornered

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October has come and gone, and with it, Halloween. But November gives us more fun in the shadows. Yes, it’s time once again for Noirvember: a month devoted to the twisted world of film noir. Once again this year I’ll be spotlighting some of my favorite noir titles. Some will be familiar to you, while others are hidden gems I’ve discovered in the last year or so. My first selection is one that may be new to you. It doesn’t appear on that many great film noir lists. But it’s worth discovering all the same. It’s 1945’s Cornered. Starring Dick Powell in his second noir outing following the wonderful Murder, My Sweet, it’s a solid film noir offering.

Cornered has a twisted plot, even by film noir standards. It involves murder, international intrigue, and revenge. The film really has everything.

On being discharged at the end of the war, Canadian flyer Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell) returns to France to discover who ordered the killing of a group of resistance fighters, including his new bride. He identifies Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler), who is reported as dead himself. Not believing this, Gerard follows the trail to Argentina where it is apparent that Nazism is also far from dead.–IMDB

The way the plot unfolds does get a bit overly convoluted. The crosses and double crosses of characters seem to come left and right. You almost need a map of who is connected to who and what their place is in the story line. It’s not as confusing as, say, The Big Sleep. But it does get bogged down in plot elements at times for a little too long. That quibble aside, the film is never boring. It has some solid dialogue, fascinating characters, and some fun shooting locations (including Bronson Caves). All of these elements provide a very effective film noir world.

One of the many reasons I picked Cornered was Dick Powell. Most classic film fans know him as a crooner from films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1939. As much as I love Powell in musicals, the part of his career where he dabbled in noir is even more fascinating. I was skeptical when I watched him in Murder, My Sweet. How could anyone come close to be as good of a Philip Marlowe as Humphrey Bogart? While Bogart is still the interpretation of the character I prefer, Powell’s take on the iconic private eye was very effective. He won me over in that film as a noir actor. In Cornered, he continues to go over to the dark side in the characters he plays. It’s gripping watching him evolve into a high-caliber dramatic right before our eyes. Did I mention that Powell directed a few films too? He really was one of the most versatile people of the Hollywood golden age.It should be noted that in Cornered Powell has a strong supporting cast that includes Walter Slezak.

Cornered also benefits from the direction of Edward Dmytryk. His other film credits include Murder, My Sweet (also with Dick Powell), Crossfire, and The Caine Mutiny. Cornered is one of his many solid directing efforts. The screenplay by John Paxton, John Wexley, and an uncredited Ben Hecht has a good mix of gritty noir dialogue and creates a very effective labyrinth of a plot for us and the characters to sort through. It’s fascinating how Nazism ties into the plot and reveals and anti-fascist message in this international detective story. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is the icing on the cake. This is a gorgeously filmed noir. The scene where Powell goes to visit his wife’s grave, for example, is very moody and somber.

Cornered is flawed, but definitely worth seeing. Dick Powell is solid in the lead role. We really believe him as the grieving husband who wants to avenge his wife’s death. The screenplay is good, even though it’s occasionally a little murky. Overall it’s a very involving noir tale and it’s worthy of more recognition.

Hammer Horror Month: Dracula A.D. 1972

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This is it. We have arrived at the last week of my Hammer horror film spotlight. Halloween will be upon us tomorrow. October has flown by faster than a witch on a broomstick. So, without further ado, I give you the last film in my Hammer spotlight. It’s the counterculture Dracula movie I never knew I needed. That’s right. My final selection this month is Dracula A.D. 1972.

Let’s cut straight to the chase and discuss the plot. It involves Dracula being resurrected via a séance in swing 1972 London and the Dracula’s quest to wipe out the descendants of Professor Van Helsing.

In London 1872 – the final battle between Lawrence van Helsing and Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) on top of a coach results in Dracula dying from a stake made from the remains of a wooden wheel. Lawrence dies from his wounds and, as he is buried, a servant of Dracula buries the remains of the stake by the grave and keeps a bottle of Dracula’s ashes and the ring. One hundred years later, the colourful 1972, Johnny (Christopher Neame), the great-grandson of the servant joins up with a “group” containing Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), the grand-daughter of the present vampire hunter, Abraham van Helsing and with their unknowing help resurrect Dracula in the 20th Century who is determined to destroy the house of Van Helsing, but who can believe that The king of the Vampires really exists and is alive – in 20th Century London?–IMDB

It should be noted that Lorrimer Van Helsing, the family descendant of Lawrence Van Helsing, is played by Peter Cushing. Mr. Cushing was destined to play a vampire hunter on-screen and constantly battle Christopher Lee. And as a Hammer fan I wouldn’t have it any other way. Two of Britain’s greatest actors gave us great entertainment when they appeared on screen together multiple times.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is ridiculous even by vampire movie standards. The idea of him being resurrected by swingers in London is just ludicrous. But the reason this film works for me is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Right after we get through the traditional Hammer Dracula opening with him being killed near a creepy castle, there’s a swift change in tone. All the sudden we here 70s disco music. At that point I half expected Blacula to show up. Side note: see Blacula if you haven’t. It has to be seen to be believed. But then, so does Dracula A.D. 1972. But I digress.

This film is just a hoot. The séance scene alone makes it worth seeing. It’s gloriously over-acted and overdone with overly dramatic music and satanic imagery. If you need a good chuckle, this is your movie.

The real reason to see Dracula A.D. 1972 though is when Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battle it out in the end. Even amidst a preposterous story line, cheesy 1970s music and questionable fashion statements, these two horror icons put on an entertaining third act. The payoff of the film makes up for the camp of the first two.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is campy, overdone, and it’s one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had watching a cheesy horror flick. Today the multiplex is plagued with unnecessary sequels and remakes. While Dracula A.D. 1972 is no award-worthy masterpiece, you have to admire it on some level because it dares to have an original story idea.