The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Things break fast in Seattle. The light, for instance. A fellow can come home to his rooftop pad, take a sniff of midafternoon air, follow that up with a quick shower, and drift into the livingroom to find it invaded by not only a ski-masked burglar but also the mellow gold of sunset. The apartment looks lovely at just that moment, right out of an ad for Northwest living; one is reminded that cameraman Laszlo Pal more frequently occupies himself hymning the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and otherwise shooting commercials. But, to pay quickly what compliments can be paid in connection with Scorchy, our latest made-righcheer-in-town movie, much of Pal’s color camerawork is more attractive and expensive-looking than what we are accustomed to see in grindhouse actioners—which, anywhere except its home shooting base, is the category Scorchy will fall into. Presumably he cannot be blamed for the absence of any coherent directorial notion of where the camera should be put, no more than ace Aldrich editor Michael Luciano can do much about a series of one-shots which, when spliced together, suggest interlocutor A was facing due west while interlocutor B kept his gaze rigidly focused south-southeast.