The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno(Fox Home Entertainment, 5.9.2006)
"It has been suggested that the movie blockbuster is the new art form of the twentieth century. If this is true, Irwin Allen is one of its leading artists." How much do you want to bet Irwin Allen wrote that quote? This was taken from a hyberbolic old featurette about The Towering Inferno and, after watching Allen endlessly praise himself and itemize his every contribution to these films, I'm convinced that he was the biggest egomaniac in the history of Hollywood. Or maybe just the greatest showman. Is there really a difference?
Irwin Allen was the king of the disaster film but, truth be told, only two of them were any good (that is, unless you appreciate the artistry of The Swarm or Beyond the Poseidon Adventure). And The Towering Inferno is tolerable, at best. Under the direction of journeyman hack John Guillermin (Shaft in Africa, anyone?) -- with the support of "action director" Allen -- The Towering Inferno is occasionally quite entertaining, but it's far too static and long-winded for its own good. Due to the success of The Poseidon Adventure, Allen decided that he was an artist (as The Towering Inferno's most half-baked shots emphasize, he wasn't even much of a craftsman) and he felt it was appropriate to release The Towering Inferno at an epic 164 minutes.
If I had to choose a favorite Allen disaster film -- although that doesn't really seem fair or necessary -- it would be The Poseidon Adventure. Made under the classy and skillful direction of former cinematographer Ronald Neame (director of The Horse's Mouth, Gambit, Hopscotch, and numerous other forgotten gems), The Poseidon Adventure is a more appropriately-scaled and involving film than The Towering Inferno. It also features a lot more death, some of which is totally unexpected.
But who cares what I think? The real question is, "How are the DVDs?" In a word, incredible. To be honest, I'm not crazy about either of these films, but with the sheer number of interesting personalities involved, there's no shortage of fascinating anecdotes and observations to go around. Rather than cram these discs with the bland making-of content that overwhelms so many mediocre 2-disc sets, these releases are chock full of solid behind-the-scenes entertainment.
First up, between these 2 sets, there's no less than three terrific commentaries. The Poseidon Adventure includes an entertaining, surprisingly frank (and even adult) track by actresses Pamela Sue Martin, Stella Stevens, and Carol Lynley and, it must be said, these old broads have plenty of spunk. We also get a solid, educational, slightly technical track by the 95 year-old (!?!) Neame. His filmmaking philosophies are slightly rigid and old-fashioned -- everything about Neame is old -- but, even at his advanced age, Neame is a lively and engaging speaker. And don't miss the 3 brief interview clips with him on disc-2. Call me a sap, but I thought Neame's reading of a fan's letter was kind of touching.
The Towering Inferno only features one full length commentary -- by critic extraordinaire F.X. Feeney, who shared many memorable anecdotes in Z Channel -- but it's a first-rate track that manages to keep you interested for nearly three solid hours, which is more than I can say for the film itself. Feeney makes a number of perceptive observations but, truth be told, he's too good for this movie. His keen insight makes The Towering Inferno seem better than it really is.
Those hungry for some modern perspective on the film's special effects and stunts, need look no further than the partial commentaries (on select scenes) by modern practitioners of those crafts, Mike Vezina (special effects director on X-Men 3) and Branko Racki (stunt coordinator on The Day After Tomorrow). To be honest, these partial tracks are pretty dull, but those with a specialized interest in these topics might find them worthwhile.
Both 2-disc sets also include typically entertaining episodes of AMC Backstory and numerous new featurettes, including an interesting tribute to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (that appears on both sets). Both sets of featurettes include several anecdotes concerning the films' respective acting tyrants. In The Poseidon Adventure, it was loudmouth Shirley Winters, who surprised everyone by getting an Oscar nomination for her performance as an overweight -- she actually gained weight for the role -- championship swimmer with heart problems.
During The Towering Inferno shoot, there were two tyrants: the perpetually tardy Faye Dunaway (apparently, Sterling Hayden almost kicked her ass for arriving late to set one too many times) and the ultra-competitive Steve McQueen, who demanded twelve additional lines of dialogue so he'd have the same number of lines as Paul Newman. It might be worth counting their lines in the finished film to see how the final tally breaks down.
In general, the interviewees have a pride and respect for these films that borders on delusional. Their irreverent characterization of Irwin Allen, however, comes across far more appealingly. Apparently, Allen's idea of a good date was lunch at Jack in the Box (his favorite restaurant) and his incomprehensibly labyrinthine hairstyle was known for pre-dating and out-weirding Donald Trump's notorious wig...thing. Of course, since Irwin Allen is dead, all the cheap shots are prefaced with polite phrases like "Irwin was a great guy, but..." All joking aside, Allen was obviously a well-regarded man and a committed filmmaker. Too bad most of his films sucked.
As you can probably sense by now, Fox really pulled out all the stops for these discs. They even include "interactive" articles from American Cinematographer, a tantalizing prospect -- given that movie clips can clarify the otherwise confusing technical information that's included in most AC articles -- but, sadly, the only interactivity here is the option to enlarge stills from the articles. Interesting aside: in one of the articles on The Towering Inferno, writer Charles Loring dismisses Richard Lester's incredible film Juggernaut as "Britain's recent entry in the disaster sweepstakes" and "a bush-league effort" compared to certifiably non-bush-league gems like Airport 1975, Earthquake, and The Hindenburg (which the writer admits he hadn't even seen yet). Sounds like patriotic Hollywood propaganda to me.
I could go on all day listing the features on these jam-packed discs, but why not cut to the explosion. If you have a love -- or even tolerance -- of these pictures (as Irwin Allen would call them), pick up these DVDs immediately. The transfers are excellent! The features are spectacular! The cases are literally busting open with stills and booklets! Seriously, flipping through these discs, I felt a renewed love for the medium of DVD. For light, frivolous, (indoor) summer fun, you can't do much better than this. -- Jonathan Doyle