Robert Wagner

The Towering Inferno (1974, John Guillermin)

For a disaster movie to succeed, I suppose all it really has to do is keep you interested for its running time. The Towering Inferno runs almost three hours and manages that task, so much so, the ending seems a little abrupt. It’s not like the first act breezes by, either. In fact, it only makes it through the first act because of the goodwill the opening credits–with an amazing John Williams piece–earn. There’s maybe five minutes of setup they could have done without, to get to the fabulous first death sequence a little earlier.

The worst performance in the film is probably Richard Chamberlain, but even he’s solid. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are good, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner–Norman Burton’s excellent in a small part. Faye Dunaway and William Holden appear busy. Even O.J. Simpson is good–the film’s treatment of race is particularly interesting, as Simpson plays the chief of security (and Felton Perry later shows up as a senior fireman).

The mattes all hold up and the action sequences, until the fire’s put out at the end (why do the flames recede before the water hits them?), do too. It’s well-made nonsense, with the majority of the cast managing not to look embarrassed.

Of particular interest is how Gullermin and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp shoot the dramatic scenes. It’s not like a seventies movie at all, instead aping Cinemascope methods.

It’s a shame the genre failed. The Towering Inferno is a fine diversion.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on a novel by Richard Martin Stern and a novel by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson; director of photography, Fred J. Koenekamp; edited by Carl Kress and Harold F. Kress; music by John Williams; production designer, William J. Creber; produced by Irwin Allen; released by Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

Starring Steve McQueen (Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (Jim Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty Duncan Simmons), Richard Chamberlain (Roger Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Liselotte Mueller), O.J. Simpson (Harry Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Gary Parker), Robert Wagner (Dan Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Sheila Allen (Paula Ramsay), Norman Burton (Will Giddings), Jack Collins (Mayor Robert Ramsay), Don Gordon (Fireman Kappy), Felton Perry (Fireman Scott), Gregory Sierra (Carlos), Ernie F. Orsatti (Fireman Mark Powers) and Dabney Coleman (Deputy Chief #1).


Harper (1966, Jack Smight)

Harper may very well be an anachronism. I’m not quite sure how to use the word. There’s certainly something off about it. It’s based on a novel written in 1949–a detective novel in the vein of Chandler, which explains why it feels like Chandler–but then it’s filmed in 1966 and it’s not a period piece, but that discrepancy isn’t what I’m talking about. Harper was on the cusp between studio-based filming and location filming. A lot of Harper is location work, shot by Conrad L. Hall, who does a beautiful job. Except there’s some studio stuff in there–driving with rear projection–and it just doesn’t work. When the movie started and I realized–around the time Johnny Mandel’s name showed up with the music credit–it was directed by Jack Smight. All I could remember from Smight’s oeuvre was one of the Airport movies, but I knew he wasn’t going to work out. The combination of him and Johnny Mandel doing a detective movie, just wasn’t going to work.

But Harper does work to some degree. It’s incredibly well-written by William Goldman and incredibly well-acted by the entire cast. Except you’ve got a cast and a writer–whether they knew it or not (though I imagine Goldman did know)–working against the director. Smight wasn’t trying to screw up the movie, his background just didn’t provide the tools required to make Harper work to its full potential. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about Bullitt and how Peter Yates did something different with Bullitt and Jack Smight didn’t do anything different with Harper and Harper was written to be a different kind of movie. There are scenes going on too long for emphasis and these music cues to clue the viewer in on this film being “cool” maybe… I don’t know. It’s not a cool movie. Listen to the searching, sadden dialogue. The scenes between Paul Newman and divorce-in-progress wife Janet Leigh are fantastic. Not even Smight misunderstanding Goldman’s script and Newman and Leigh’s acting can cut down on how wonderful their eventual scene (after they’re in a couple telephone conversation scenes) turns out.

Harper‘s opening credits are a treasure-trove of good actors who’ve become punch lines or just forgotten. Lauren Bacall shows up, playing–to some degree–her character’s father from The Big Sleep. She’s only around for a couple scenes, but she’s good in them and having fun. She’s playing for the camera though, which is sort of what Smight was going for. A laugh. Specifically, those punch line actors are Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s damn good here. Winters is playing herself, which is funny for a bit, and then it becomes clear she doesn’t have much else to do. In the forgotten department, Robert Webber’s scary good and Strother Martin shows up in a straight role (probably the first time I’ve seen him not being funny). Julie Harris is actually the only disappointing performance. Arthur Hill’s good and I thought it was strange to see Newman share so much of the film with him, but then I looked at Newman’s filmography and realized he doesn’t monopolize. A lot of the friendship between Newman and Hill is verbalized though and maybe it was the unexpected.

I’ve seen Harper before. Maybe seven years ago it aired on AMC, probably letterboxed. I remember not being impressed with it. Seeing it again, I definitely appreciate it more, but there’s a bit of sadness along with it–just because it could have been so much better, if only it had a different director.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliot Kastner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson), Robert Wagner (Alan Traggert), Robert Webber (Dwight Troy), Shelley Winters (Fay Estabrook), Harold Gould (Sheriff Spanner), Strother Martin (Claude), Roy Jensen (Puddler), Martin West (Deputy) and Jacqueline de Wit (Mrs. Kronberg).


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