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 46, December 1975]
While the gangster genre has its fair share of anti-heroes portrayed as psychotic delinquent types (perhaps a fair working definition of the cinematic hood), and while those types help define an aspect of the genre, they certainly aren’t confined to the set boundaries of its form and indeed have indicated new directions for movies that deal with organized crime and the people whose lives revolve around it. Not too surprisingly, then, Corman’s (and Carver’s) Capone is loosely related to Coppola’s Don Corleone (Gazzara even stuffs his jowls with padding), but he might, in conception at least, bear a closer resemblance to Scorsese’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets—a “gangster” story that shares the traditionally mythic elements inherent in the genre while managing its own very personal working-out of the meanings of both violence and friendship. That Johnny Boy is comparatively peripheral in Mean Streets may suggest the uniqueness of Scorsese’s film in its relationship to movies in which the alienated hood stands in a position to manipulate perspective by ensconcing himself at the metaphysical core of his cinematic universe, but Johnny Boy’s gangland genealogy traces back in a psychologically straight line to Hawks’ Tony Camonte, and there is little doubt that Corman, Carver, and screenwriter Browne at least had Scarface in mind during the making of Capone.