The cycle of all-star/big-budget disaster pics that started with AIRPORT/’70 hit a prestige peak and its ‘camp’ tipping-point at almost the exact same time when A-listers in THE TOWERING INFERNO opened only a month after the B-listers & rumbling SENSURROUND!* of this typically cheesy Jennings Lang production. The point of these things was to get as many recognizable Hollywood types in danger as quickly as possible; then watch them claw their way out . . . or not. But this example of the form was out of the cruddy Universal Studios assembly-line world of top-agent turned Movie Mogul Lew Wasserman, so everything looks like a ‘70s Movie-of-the-Week, no matter the budget. Even worse, Mario Puzo plots it like one. With not-so special effects out of a contemporary GODZILLA pic, we’re far below the gold standard of disaster pics past like SAN FRANCISCO/’36, THE RAINS CAME/’39 or even THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH/’26. But a few incidental pleasures remain, mostly unintentional laughs. Like when George Kennedy’s tough cop adds in the fact that the little girl he saw killed by a speeding car was Hispanic. Chuck Heston’s sports jacket & Victoria Principal's hair-do are pretty wonderful, too. But the only reputations that truly survive this one are lenser Philip Lathrop who buys into that ghastly overlit Universal fluorescent look pre-earthquake, so he can not so subtly subvert it post. And that great matte painting whiz Albert Whitlock, ignoring the insultingly poor composite work by the Universal tech department to concentrate his considerable talents on two overwhelming, long-view streetscapes that boast a poetic surrealism Fritz Lang might have signed-off on back in his UFA days.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In most venues, the big SENSURROUND speakers were visible in the four corners of the theater. Don’t sit too close!, those sub-woofers really shook up the joint during the quakes. The gimmick returned to little effect on Jack Smight’s dull WWII pic MIDWAY/’76, but gave a nice lift to ROLLERCOASTER/’77, on screen if not at the box-office.
DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well check out THE TOWERING INFERNO, just to see how much worse the ‘classier’ competition is.