Dear Catastrophe Waiting

Finally, the original Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno get respectful DVD treatment.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 17, 2006

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Fear no evil: Steve McQueen plays a self-assured firefighter trying to save a doomed office building in The Towering Inferno.

The Poseidon Adventure

The Towering Inferno

Both Include: Two commentary tracks, second disc with many featurettes and
You'll Like Them If You Like: Disaster films, the '70s, camp.

"How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?"

Gene Hackman's messianic priest in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure may be yelling at God, but he sounds more like a hippie protesting Vietnam.

For all their cheesy '70s-ness, aging-stars-in-jeopardy campiness and hokey action-hero posturing, disaster films of that era still feel nakedly political. They're astonishingly vivid images of an era of constant violence, upheaval, corruption and mistrust of government and bureaucracy.

Little wonder they enjoyed a strikingly narrow window of popularity.

Airport kicked things off as the highest-grossing movie of 1970 and the highest-grossing film in the history of Universal Pictures. That morose potboiler-in which an airplane disaster takes a back seat to the self-pity of middle-aged men-led to the genre's three highlights, all of which ranked among the era's top grossers: The Poseidon Adventure, released at the end of 1972, and then both Earthquake and the extravagant Towering Inferno at the end of 1974.

President Nixon's resignation in August 1974 seemed to stop production of disaster movies dead in their tracks, and they do seem tied to the catastrophes of Nixon's era. Poseidon's unforgettable post-tidal wave shots-with everyone who was happily celebrating New Year's a few minutes earlier now hanging upside down-are like fever-dream images of a topsy-turvy America, beset by 10 years of war, scandal, riots and assassinations. So too Inferno's burning skyscraper, grimly flaming for the world to see, is consumed from the inside by the deceit and corner-cutting of self-seeking bureaucrats.

It's hard to watch The Towering Inferno after 9/11, especially since its hammy acting and cornball dialogue make the tragedy of the burning building seem campy and trivial. (It's equally hard to go back to seeing O.J. Simpson as just an old football hero trying to make it as a movie actor.)

But Inferno's still an amazing movie to revisit in the Bush era-as it's filled with bitterness and contempt for white male bureaucrats and corporate types who want only to maximize their profits and save their own asses. Made in the heart of the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down, it points a finger directly at official cover-ups and corporate greed, as a creepy subcontractor (Richard Chamberlain) installs substandard wiring in the world's tallest building to save money. Of course the movie's hero is its self-righteous working-class firefighter (Steve McQueen), who bullies his way through his job with swaggeringly blunt confidence.

And yet Poseidon, the genre's indisputable classic, goes this class distinction one better by making its hero an angry priest, fusing religious appeal and '60s-style counterculture to a '70s-style antihero, played by classic '70s antihero Gene Hackman, who won his Oscar for The French Connection during Poseidon's shoot.

Like Moses, Hackman's Rev. Scott leads his flock to safety, but not without some Christlike raging at the Lord: "What more do you want of us? We've come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no thanks to you. Leave us alone!" With dialogue like that, it's no wonder the Poseidon remake does away with the priest character entirely (along with the rest of the original's story and characters).

Who better to blame for a natural disaster than God himself? (Though the movie also drags in a corporate stiff from the ship owner's firm as a token evil bureaucrat.) What's fascinating about watching the old Poseidon today is how antiauthoritarian it is. The voices of the ship's bureaucracy consistently urge stasis and faith in order that only lead people to be killed, while rebellious Rev. Scott and his followers head out to try to find safety on their own.

In the process, of course, we meet as indelible a cast of characters as in any mainstream '70s movie. The characters are almost interchangeable with the iconic actors-Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowell, Pamela Sue Martin-who played them. Struggling to face loss and death, they hit emotional buttons that ring remarkably true almost 35 years later.

It's easy to make fun of this motley crew of has-beens, never-weres and never-would-bes. But watch their faces-or watch the movie with the sound off-and you'll see what the first moviegoers saw in Griffith epics: vivid emotions, felt by clearly drawn characters, in the face of life-or-death struggles.

Inferno, on the other hand, now plays like a sad mirror of its own tower-a big-budget extravaganza that feels cheap, filled with coasting actors tiptoeing up to the line of self-parody. It's got the same mix of old and new stars as Poseidon, but here it feels like a cynical calculation, while there it works as a Noah's Ark parable of strangers thrown together by disaster. Irwin Allen, the impresario behind both movies, had let his formula calcify, which may have been why he couldn't sustain it any longer.

These two DVD special editions take the movies as seriously as if they were major Best Picture winners, with commentary tracks free of irony and whole extra discs of respectful interviews, retrospectives and making-of featurettes.

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