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 60-61, February 1979]
Scrapers of cinematic barrel bottoms, stand advised: John Hough has laid incontestable claim to his long-sought title, the new James Goldstone. This department confesses to having been remiss in not calling your attention to the first change in the wind, the old James Goldstone’s 1977 realization of Rollercoaster, a Sensurround disaster pic so inoffensive, even moderately competent in execution, that it alienated the taken-for-granted audience for such fare and failed at the box office. At this time we can only conjecture whether Goldstone’s unanticipated lurch toward respectability will continue unchecked or prove an aberration in an otherwise execrable track record. Meanwhile Hough, the most flagrantly conscienceless hack to appear in the past decade (Sudden Terror, Treasure Island and above all the loathsome Dirty Mary Crazy Larry), has seized the day.