The Master of Disaster and The Towering Inferno
With a prolific career in Hollywood, producing numerous classic 60s television series and some of the best disaster pictures of the 1970s, Irwin Allen's legacy as the "Master of Disaster" stands strong. A major influence on any disaster film made since the genre's heyday that included two Allen productions in the form of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and 1975 Best Picture nominee, The Towering Inferno, his fingerprints are all over the genre from the all-star casts, impressive special effects, and stories of ordinary people against incredible odds. With this week's release of Skyscraper, the new Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vehicle that looks like a hybrid of both Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, we at Talk Film Society figured now was as good a time as ever to highlight Allen's career and the stamp he left on this particular brand of film.
Watch the recent trailer for Skyscraper, the fingerprints of Towering Inferno and Die Hard are all over it. A single location action movie with a lead character who's out of his depth and on a mission to save his loved ones. The Rock is clearly a great choice for this role and it looks like he'll be playing against type for once, at least a little bit. At a disadvantage because of a prosthetic leg, he's the John McClane (Bruce Willis) or Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) of the piece. Whereas McClane was an East coast cop trying to save his wife (played by the lovely Bonnie Bedelia) from Hans Gruber's terrorist thieves, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a security consultant for the tallest building in the world trying to save his wife and daughter from a sinister conspiracy. In Allen's Towering Inferno, Newman plays the architect of the tallest building in the world and has to ensure the safety of everyone inside as the building burns from the inside. Johnson seems capable enough to embody both of these character's essences and without a doubt there'll be a few sequences aping these two classics.
The Towering Inferno wasn't Allen's first big Hollywood hit, that distinction goes to 72's The Poseidon Adventure. A blast from start to finish with some all-timer performances by Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters (an Oscar nominated role), and Ernest Borgnine, it's a riveting film about a capsized cruise ship and the survivors’ journey to escape the sinking, upside-down ocean liner. It's a classic Hollywood film in the best ways and still a lot of fun to revisit. A household staple for me when I was growing up, iconic lines would be repeated back and forth at family dinners and it eventually became a movie that my mother and I share a close affection for. Nominated for 9 Oscars and winning two for Best Original Song and a visual effects, The Poseidon Adventure is one for the ages and even inspired a big budget remake in 2006 from Wolfgang Petersen and featuring another all-star cast with Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, Andre Braugher, Emmy Rossum, and Fergie (yes, THAT Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame) to less than stellar results. Unlike the original, the remake was not a hit with either critics or audiences, bringing essentially nothing new to the table other than some updated technology and special effects. It’s a movie that’s been all but forgotten in this era of remakes and reshashes and with good reason. Luckily, the original was indeed a hit, paving the way for Allen’s 1974 production of The Towering Inferno, still considered by many to the one of the best disaster pictures of all time.
The pinnacle of the 70s disaster picture,, The Towering Inferno was the first of its kind. A joint venture between two major Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, Allen was able to get his movie made with some inventive wheeling and dealing. The story goes that Warner Bros had the rights to Richard Stern's 1973 novel "The Tower" while Fox had acquired the rights, in a game of one-upmanship, to Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson's 1974 book "The Glass Inferno". Allen, realizing that two pictures about burning skyscrapers competing at the box office would be a lose-lose situation for both studios, convinced the two Hollywood giants to collaborate on one massive film, splitting the box office receipts. Modern studio heads have been burned (pun intended) by not adopting this revolutionary producing tactic, which lead to the near simultaneous late 90s releases of Armageddon and Deep Impact, and Dante's Peak and Volcano.
Audiences may have gone to Towering Inferno expecting big budget spectacle but what they got instead was a damn good picture with great performances and enough intertwining side-stories to justify it’s almost three hour runtime. The cast here is massive with both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen sharing top billing, followed by William Holden in second billing, something their representation fought tooth and nail over. At the outset Holden demanded top billing but was quickly denied as his box office draw had been diminishing over the years, so that left Newman and McQueen, who had a famous rivalry at the time to duke it out for the top title card. Eventually a compromise was reached where they would share billing during the credits, get the same exact pay, and even have the same amount of lines of dialogue, just one of the many headaches of the huge production.
All three “leads” bring their A-game, giving the film a lived in feel that's hard to replicate as many future disaster movies would prove. Allen had a way of assembling top-tier ensembles and Towering Inferno might be his best achievement in that regard. In addition the big names at the top, the cast is rounded out by some acclaimed character actors including Fred Astaire (receiving his only Oscar nomination here), Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Susan Blakely, and Robert Wagner. With a cast this big as well as the aforementioned runtime, everyone gets their time to shine with director John Guillermin’s almost Altman-esque approach to storytelling; lives intersect and influence each other constantly, marking the filmmaker's finest turn behind the camera.
A massive hit with audiences and major critics, Inferno would go on to make almost nine times its budget back at the box office, giving Allen one of the biggest hits of his career. Will Skyscraper have the same sort of success? Early reactions have been positive and if anything it'll be a fun time and a good way to spend a hot summer night. The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure before it were amazing achievements and experiences that aren't likely to be replicated, all thanks to the “Master of Disaster” himself, Irwin Allen.