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 53, January 1977]
There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of Clair’s And Then There Were None or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Express did, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
In the drawingroom detective storyâ€”whether literary or cinematic or bothâ€”the central feature of the genreâ€™s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in â€œreal lifeâ€ would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nile fairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the filmâ€™s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial â€œnostalgiaâ€ of Sidney Lumetâ€™s Murder on the Orient Express (with which Death on the Nile insists upon comparison), Guillerminâ€™s film stresses placeâ€”and the movement from one place to anotherâ€”more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Expressâ€™s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progressâ€”however illusoryâ€”by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumetâ€™s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Express bog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworthâ€™s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shafferâ€™s Sleuth, or the Anthony Perkinsâ€“Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila), where Orient Express never got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.