Monday, March 28, 2005

Talking during movies



The DVD audio commentary is one the great inventions of man, next to dark chocolate and the garbage disposal. Great ones I've come across are Sidney Lumet's for The Verdict (because of his professionalism, insight, and utter humanity) and Roger Ebert's for Citizen Kane (because the man is a sponge of information).

But the best is Ken Loring's commentary on the Coen brothers' 1984 debut 'Blood Simple,' a pulpy, hard-boiled noir. The DVD cover touts Loring as a critic and film restorer for Forever Young Films, and it all sounds properly boring. But Loring isn't real. The Coens wrote their own script for the audio commentary, and Christopher Guest regular Jim Piddock delivers it as Loring in his clipped British accent (you may recall Piddock as the "mayor" of Crabbetown in 'A Mighty Wind' or the announcer opposite Fred Willard in 'Best in Show'). 'Blood Simple' is a kick-ass movie to begin with, but the commentary is an added bit of genius, a work of art in itself. In fact, word for word, it might be the Coens' best script ever. Certainly, it's their funniest.

Trust me. Get your hands on the DVD. It's a tour de farce.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Bobby Short, 1924-2005

Last September, I saw Bobby Short at the Kennedy Center, where he performed a bunch of songs by Cole Porter, his favorite. The evening was ostensibly a celebration of Porter, and Short was just a bonus performer in a lineup of talent led by Marvin Hamlisch. But New York City's most enduring cabaret performer (36 years at The Carlyle, probably most visible playing himself in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters) stole the show when he closed the evening with his signature "In the Night." For most of the evening, he had played the piano, but for this number he took centerstage, belting the song to the rafters, his 80-year-old voice stretched and strained like Louis Armstrong taffy. He took four encores of the last verse of the song -- a brass-heavy, climactic big-band bonanza -- and the applause grew after each one. He just kept motioning to the band to kick it one more time, and it was like a sustained fever-pitch joy that, if I close my eyes, I'm still experiencing.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

'Well I'm the only one here'



TAXI DRIVER (1976) With Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel and Peter Boyle. Writted by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese.

I saw 'Taxi Driver' for the first time five or six years ago, and watching it again today reminded me of how mobile Scorsese's camera is, and how many of the shots I recalled and anticipated the moment before they happened. The look and rhythm of the film is so memorable it was like its motions were grafted onto my memory. The movie meant nothing to me when I first saw it, but it rang true this time, because the spector of loneliness grows with age. 'Taxi Driver' is first about isolation (mostly self-imposed), and only incidentally is it about the violence and rage that blooms because of it.

That isolation is manifested in the final shot of the movie, the only shot I truly recalled vividly, a shot that was already on my mind before the second viewing started to jog my memory of the others. I'm confidant I know what it means, though after watching the useful making-of documentary on the DVD I'm not so sure. How literal is it? I read into it the first time, and I read into it the second time. I base conclusions on instinct, so I think my interpretations of the film's end sequence is more metaphorical and tragic than the filmmakers might've intended it to be.

My favorite moment, though, is when De Niro, as Travis Bickle, is on a pay phone trying to patch up things with the love interest played by Cybill Shepherd. We only hear his side of the conversation, and things obviously aren't going well, and he's sounding very pathetic and strange. And the camera, which has held on him at a medium shot, slowly drifts to the right and out into the hallway, where it comes to rest. Bickle is still talking and we hear him, but we see only the empty hall. It's like the camera was embarrassed for him and turned away in shame.

'Taxi Driver' is one of those movies that vibrates with not only the passion and abandon of a young filmmaker, but also with the synergy of the team that was making it. It's well-oiled yet raw, calculated yet exciting. Everyone on the crew was making the same movie, and that's how good movies are made. In a De Niro/Pacino face-off, I'd always chosen Pacino, who always seemed more the chameleon to me. But De Niro's work here is perfect, and he disappears. Listen to his voice, his cadence. It's the key to the character and it works. It also works because of Bernard Herrmann, veteran score composer of Hitchcock pictures, who created one of the best and most haunting scores -- a lonely, romantic sax penetrating the New York nights of 'Taxi Driver,' and those calamitous, desperate percussions over the climactic sequence. Hours after Herrmann finished recording the score in December 1975, he died, at 64, and at the top of his career.

A couple years back, there was talk that De Niro and Scorsese were throwing around the idea of a sequel, or a "revisitation." I view this as a desperate attempt to reclaim the verve of young filmmaking, and filmmaking of the '70s. Look at De Niro now -- seemingly resigned to slummy parts in 'Analyze This/That' and 'Meet the Parents/Fockers.' Scorsese isn't fairing much better; 'Gangs of New York' was a bewildering wreck, and 'The Aviator,' while many times better, seemed a conformity. Yes, they are both 30 years older and the same type of filmmaking should not be expected of either. But the same quality should be.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

David Thomson does algebra



David Thomson thinks too much.

Sometimes it serves him well. He's a passionate, prolific, fiercely opinionated film critic -- this is the guy that thinks Spielberg's only good film is Empire of the Sun -- and he probably knows more about the movies than anyone. But he does do lots of thinking, and I think too much cerebrum can wring the life out of a movie. Analysis, of course, is the fundamental part of criticism, but there is something to be said for watching movies with abandon, which I don't think Thomson ever does.

Regardless, his new book The Whole Equation is an ambitious attempt to capture the essence of cinema and how that essence was created/exploited/digested. It's not exactly a history book, though it's a good deal of history (and its subtitle is "A History of Hollywood"). It's not a critical tome, either, though there is plenty of criticism (the polite way Thomson's opinions poke into his prose is amusing). It's more a 370-page think piece, a statement on the state of movies using evidence, sentiment and, most of all, logic. The "equation" of Thomson's title is the whole "why?" of movies -- why they exist, why we love them, why they change, why they've gotten worse. The book, while meandering, always moves from one topic to another in the style of an algebra equation; this equals this, which caused that, and if that means this, then we have that. See?

I'm not sure what's on the other end of Thomson's equal sign, but reading the book is like having a conversation with a fellow cinephile, which is just fine. At the end of the first chapter, through which he describes Robert Towne's vitriolic gestation of Chinatown, he writes: "The gap between Chinatown and umpteen possible future Mission: Impossibles is the lament of this book." And it is a lamentation. If there is a mood to the book, it's "movies these days suck, but movies are dangerous and fickle distractions in the first place, and will never truly deserve our attention." Thomson, of course, doesn't spell this out, but it can be sensed in between his nostalgic delineations of the silent era, how the studios rose, how the studio decline fed the glory years of the '70s, how the glory years of the '70s birthed the blockbuster, and how the blockbuster has become the pallbearer for the state of cinema today. One of the definitive conclusions he reaches is that film is inseparable from money, and many chapters are filled with Thomson throwing around box-office figures, salaries, net profits and net worths, to try and determine the value (both monetary and otherwise) of Hollywood.

Thomson is at his best when he's confessing his own affections and trying to understand his feelings toward the movies. This is illustrated wonderfully in a chapter-long examination of his feelings toward Nicole Kidman, specifically how (and why) she is a movie star and how (and why) she was able to stage a coup of sorts as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Thomson comes as close as anyone to articulating why we fall for famous people. (Kidman's face graces the back cover of the book, Rita Hayworth's the front, no doubt to make the connection between old and new obsession, the whole equation.)

Above all, though, Thomson is a good wordsmith. Here are my favorite selections from "The Whole Equation," to give you a sense of the book:

"Nearly everyone important in the old Hollywood gambled several nights a week, as if they dared not lose touch with magic."

"Make a success and you are no longer simply in the art of making films but in the business of making successes."

"I have said that happiness is inseparable from the American movies, and surely happiness taken for granted can easily degenerate into stupidity, sentimentality, and absurd overoptimism."

"What of those fleeting instants when something like rapture, or complicity, passes over a face thirty feet high, and we sigh, in the deepest pit of our being, 'Baby...' as if we were being kissed? And kissing?"

"But do the movies offer education, or rather a lifetime of impossible desire?"

"Charlie [Chaplin] fucked like a very wealthy man with an utterly private life."

"That's what the Academy was for -- to blur the equation enough so that profit and fame could be called art."

"I suspect that a greater and more insidious influence may lie in that movies tell us about being in love, and how to conduct ourselves while in that condition."

"Never mind the numbers, if you were to make Gone with the Wind today (but don't), with, say, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman..."

"I have nothing to say about Star Wars."

"Can anyone credit that thirty years from now there will be audience for the three parts of The Matrix, anywhere? Even if Keanu Reeves is our president?"

"[After Love, Actually,] my wife said: 'It's a date film. The place was full of couples. When are today's movies going to regain that old habit they had, of getting us to the point of fucking?'"

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Everything's Coming Up Hobbits



From the photo above, I can totally see how The Lord of the Rings can (and will) be made into a lavish Broadway musical.

In what I interpret as an imminent sign of the apocalypse, The New York Post reports today that a stage version of the Tolkien book will hit Toronto in March 2006, cleave its way to London after, then settle into Middle-Earth Manhattan. I can see Barry Humphries accepting a Tony in June 2007 for his role as Gandalf, the white-bearded, light-footed wizard with a song in his heart.

This news -- coupled with word that a musical version of "The Apprentice" is in development, coupled with shows fashioned around the music of Elvis and the Beach Boys -- is indicative of three things: 1) That the world is a very sad place. 2) That Broadway investors are desperate for a big-titted hit and must resort to proven blockbusters as source material. 3) That the creative community is out of ideas and/or effort. Now I know #3 isn't possible; ideas and effort just don't translate readily into dollar signs, so we don't get to see those people who have the ideas and effort.

So we get this. Since wallowing in misery and bad news is a great American pasttime, I'd like to hear your thoughts on casting and song choices for The Lord of the Rings: The Musical! Here are mine:

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna as Gandalf, of course ("Oh possums, now what did I do with my ring -- it's solid pyrate!). Since there are no computer-generated effects on the stage, they'll have to get real little people for those hobbits -- maybe Dustin Hoffman as Frodo? Gollum is a part only Joel Grey could adequately flesh out. Michael Flatley as someone. The big evil eye thing, maybe. Who else...the elf and the dwarf, right? Hugh Jackman in a blond wig and Harvey Fierstein with a mace. Hmm wait. I think the ring should be played by a real person. Delta Burke. Delta Burke as the ring. She can just wear all gold. Or pyrate, or whatever. And Elaine Stritch can narrate from the side of the stage, holding a goblet of ork blood spiked with bourbon.

Finally, the song list: the crowd-pleasing "Everything's Coming Up Hobbits," of course (God, if Merman was alive I could see her in Cate Blanchett's part as the Moist Bint, or Watery Tart, or whatever). "Samwise Gamgee Superstar." "I Could've Plundered All Night." "There Is Nothing Like a Maiming." "If I Were a Tall Man." "The Impossible Scream." "Hair." And of course, the song that will stand unchanged because it describes the current state of entertainment: "Anything Goes."


The disturbing thing is not that Ethel Merman made a disco album, but that she might've fit right in with the weirdos of Middle Earth.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Marni Nixon, unsung hero of the movies



As Deborah Kerr solemnly rested her cheek against Yul Brynner's hand in that final frame of The King & I, there was robust, nostalgic applause. But as the lights came up, the heads of the audience did not stay fixed on the credits, but turned backward to see a petite redhead dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief several rows back. This was 75-year-old Marni Nixon, who had just performed onscreen in front of everyone's ears as the singing voice for Kerr, and who was a special guest at the Academy screening room on East 59th Street tonight.

Marni Nixon -- the ghostess with the mostess, that real-life Kathy Selden, the most famous larynx in movies -- has over the years grabbed little bits of the spotlight she was denied throughout the '50s and '60s, and last night she was grateful and humble, nevermind that if she had actually played the parts for which she had sung, she'd be the greatest star of all. Nixon was the singing voice for Kerr in The King & I (1956), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964), and provided supplemental vocals for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Kerr again in An Affair to Remember (1957). It's the greatest movie resume there never was.


[It's funny because Audrey is learning to speak correctly while someone else is doing her belting.]

But Nixon, God love 'er, is just happy to have been a part of it. Before the screening of The King & I (newly restored in its proper and epic CinemaScope 55 format), Nixon reminisced about the process of dubbing -- how she learned acting from Deborah Kerr and how Kerr learned vocal form from her. How a public relations woman at 20th Century Fox told her that if she were to spill the beans on the dubbing, she'd never work again ("A woman who will remain nameless, mainly because I can't remember her name," Nixon deadpanned). How Kerr herself was the one who leaked the information that she didn't sing her own part. How she was worried Julie Andrews wouldn't like her when the two first met in Robert Wise's bungalow on the set of The Sound of Music (Nixon played Sister Sophia -- "When I'm with her I'm confused, out of focus and bemused..."). She recalled Andrews marching through the cast to her, sticking out her hand, and saying, "Marni, I'm such a fan of yours."

In fact, Nixon's resemblance to Andrews is striking. It was then, it is now -- though one is American, the other British. One would attract attention anywhere she goes, the other would be unrecognizable, even to the most devoted film fan. Yet both were instrumental in Hollywood and on Broadway in the '50s and '60s.

But Nixon is getting credit now, in the form of events like these, where she is belatedly given top billing. "And now The King & I," announced host and Newsday arts editor John Habich, "starring Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner...and Marni Nixon." Nixon was already walking off the stage at that point, and turned around to give Habich an "Oh stop -- you mean me?" look.

Nixon has stayed active since her dubbing days, though. She's since worked with Stravinsky and Bernstein. She was recently on Broadway as Guido's mother in Nine, as Heidi Schiller in the Follies revival, and as Aunt Kate in James Joyce's The Dead. Her autobiography will be released in spring 2006. Earlier this year, she completed a tour with Steel Magnolias and her one-woman show Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood. Nixon also teaches voice and master classes and is always preparing for future concerts and recordings, her bio says.

The Academy which hosted the event owes her one of its honorary Oscars, but to fully celebrate her would be to fully celebrate the fraudulence of movies, I guess. Heaven forbid we expose Hepburn and Wood for what they really were -- pretty faces without the chops. Nixon wasn't just a pretty voice you could plug in to any pretty face. She conformed her soprano to character -- earnest and Latin for Maria, Cockney and shrill for Eliza, elegant and English for Anna. It's great chameleon work; if you were observant enough to conclude Wood, Hepburn and Kerr didn't do their own singing, it's still unlikely you'd conclude that the dubbing was all done by the same person.



As for The King & I itself, it was my first time seeing it. There was novelty in seeing it in 2.55:1, a ratio fit for, well, lavish musicals set in Siam. I had never seen Kerr in a movie before, and she reminded me of Judy Garland crossed with Billie Burke. Brynner, though, is a real ham in the role that defined his career, hands always in fists on his hips, pushing back his silk shirts to make sure his bronzed chest is always exposed. The man-versus-woman banter between the two leads is priceless and holds up very well (though the treatment of diplomacy and imperialism is a laugh). The music is forgettable and trite, but the sets make up for it in their sumptuousness.

What I found fascinating to experience and watch was the 15-minute digression into a dramatic interpretation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by the king's court. Unlike the Broadway Melody tangent in Singin' in the Rain, this one has a purpose, both in message and in spectacle. And though the end of the film is a tad packaged and sentimental, it's also strangely moving in its execution. A very un-musical-like way to orchestrate a standard musical ending.

After the second or third song, though, you forget that Deborah Kerr isn't actually singing. Nixon mentioned that dubbing was very much a collaborative effort -- Kerr had to make sure her face and throat and motions were matching the vocals, and Nixon had to make sure that her vocal tones could theoretically come from Kerr's frame and character. They executed this by doing the blocking for musical numbers together, and by singing together. The cooperation manifests itself on film as virtual seamlessness.

So Marni Nixon was very much out of everyone's mind until we got our coats on, turned around, and saw that petite redhead sitting teary-eyed in the back row. We'd forgotten about her, which means she did her job beautifully.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Can I use the John?



After agreeing to play Elton John in a movie biography, Justin Timberlake is apparently having second thoughts ... He said that when he was initially approached, 'I thought, "Wow, you're offering me that role?" But when I read the script, all the wild stuff had been left out.' The newspaper has said that Timberlake wants the film to include "sex and drug-taking" and that the producers of the film, budgeted at $39 million, have now ordered a massive rewrite in order to keep the pop star aboard. 'I told the studio that it would have to be warts-and-all so that's what it's going to be. I can't wait to get started,' Timberlake told the newspaper. (IMDb, March 8)

Isn't that all the rage? Playing musicians onscreen, warts and all, I mean. Looks like J-Tim wants to simulate Jamie Foxx's success with 'Ray' by really digging deep and truly portraying the man behind the music. Either that, or he wants to have his share of simulated sex and blow. Or wear funny hats.

His quotations in Britain's Daily Star seem self-serving and transparent. He wants to amp up the life of John so that he can amp up his own celebrity. J-Tim wants an Oscar.

Why must Hollywood convert the life of every icon into a biopic? It seems to be a rite of passage if you're a megastar; eventually, you get summarized into celluloid. But Elton John isn't even 60 years old yet. At least Taylor Hackford waited 15 years until it looked like Ray Charles was courting death, and then got the great go-ahead from above when Charles actually died. And you know for sure that a John biopic will be titled 'Rocket Man' even before there's a final draft. But I think it's gonna be a long, long time before there is a final draft.

Regardless, I look forward to the announcement that Cameron Diaz is in talks to play Princess Diana.

Monday, March 07, 2005

'Thelma & Louise' and doomed outlaw buddy pictures



THELMA & LOUISE (1991). With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Christopher MacDonald. Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.

* SPOILERS AHEAD *

Watching 'Thelma & Louise' again, I made a point to really understand how the pair got to the state of fearlessness to make their final decision. We're with them all the way because Davis and Sarandon are so likable, and because their plight is mythologized by the film as it progresses. The final showdown with cops and canyon is outrageous if you dwell on the specifics, but it really is their only choice.

But because the end of this film is so bold, it could easily have been a disaster. On the DVD special edition, an alternate ending is included. The final cut of the film ends with the car still in its upward arc, frozen, as Hans Zimmer's kick-ass score soars, and then cuts to a montage of clips showing the pair enjoying themselves and life. The alternate ending shows the car speed off the cliff without a freeze. The car plunges into the canyon as B.B. King's "Don't Look Down" plays. Watching both endings, the choice of which one to use was a matter of life and death for the film. The alternate ending undermines the story because it shows Thelma and Louise dying a nasty death. It's surprisingly agonizing to watch. The ending that Ridley Scott settled on is the only way to make the movie work.

Think of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which also freezes on the cusp of its violent ending, before we see carnage. Like 'Thelma & Louise,' it immortalizes its courageous pair by snapshotting them instead of subjecting them to a fusillade of bullets. Would 'Butch Cassidy' have worked if we saw Robert Redford and Paul Newman shredded by gunfire?

It did for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie & Clyde.' In fact, their death sequence is one of the most celebrated, and it's because of the beauty in its brutality. We see every bullet hit every sinew, and the camera lingers until they fall gracefully to the ground, deader than dead. What if the film froze on Beatty and Dunaway looking into the sky at the scattering birds, and the sound of gunfire was played over the still frame (like in 'Butch Cassidy')?



I guess it's an issue of who deserves to be immortalized. We're comfortable immortalizing characters like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, but we can't let Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow off the hook. We need to see them fileted for what they done. But didn't both pairs commit the same crimes -- murder and armed robbery? So it comes down to a matter of style. 'Bonnie & Clyde' is a movie about blood, 'Butch Cassidy' is more about slipping in wisecracks while committing capital crimes.

But neither pairs were ever really wronged. Thelma and Louise were made victims by the men in their lives. In their movie, though, only three people die, and two are Thelma and Louise. The third is a rapist who attacked Thelma. In 'Butch Cassidy,' there are a slew of casualties along the trail. In 'Bonnie & Clyde,' practically everyone dies. And for what? Sport?

I'm not judging these movies by their body count or morals -- 'Bonnie & Clyde' and 'Thelma & Louise' are two of my favorites and couldn't be more different. It's just interesting to compare the specifics of DOB (doomed outlaw buddy) pictures. Of course, if you want to compare DOB pics, then you have to get into genres. 'Bonnie & Clyde' is practically a folk song. 'Butch Cassidy' is a Western. 'Thelma & Louise' isn't easily pegged, but it's no folk song or Western. Then there's the issue of how they died. Bonnie and Clyde were killed by surprise, unarmed. Butch and Sundance went out, guns blazing. Thelma and Louise committed suicide and, consequently, their film has the only happy ending of the three.

Tangent aside, the special edition DVD of 'Thelma & Louise' is blessedly plump with extra features, including precious commentaries by Davis, Sarandon, writer Callie Khouri, and Ridley Scott. Watching the film as Davis, Sarandon and Khouri reminisce about the rollicking shoot is good fun, and shows just how many of the film's magical moments were happy accidents.

What other DOB pics are there? I can't think of any. But what binds these three together is not just the common denominator of death, but that they're all love stories, one between two men, one between two women, and one between a woman and a man. I think it's about time for a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks DOB pic. Maybe they can be wanted by the laws for being criminally cute, and the final scene can be a freeze frame as they jump off the Empire State Building as "Make Someone Happy" plays. On second thought, scratch the freeze frame.

Few movies go as deep as this one



"These young actors turned in performances so uniformly unselfish, and so intricately in tune with one another, that it became impossible to single any one of them out from their extraordinary achievement together. Their work is of such high quality that it moves beyond craft to achieve that mysterious truth and beauty that constitutes the finest acting."

- The 2005 Independent Spirit Awards nominating committee, honoring the cast of Mean Creek with a special distinction award.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

God save Mike Leigh



One of the quietest also-rans of the past 10 years, Mike Leigh endured another shutout at this year's Oscar's for his 'Vera Drake.' Here is a link to his play-by-play account of Oscar weekend as published in The Observer today. Precious excerpts are reprinted below for the lazy:

"And then those moments come. 'And the Oscar goes to ... Hilary Swank!' Rapturous applause. Fuck!!! I look at Imelda. She's smiling and clapping, a camera right on her. But I know how she's feeling ... How ridiculous! It's just as we expected, yet, oh, how disappointing! It would have been so great..."

"Best Original Screenplay. 'The Oscar goes to ... Charlie Kaufman!' Loud cheers. Oh, God! How we suffer! My camera's on me, and I clap away cheerfully, affecting great enthusiasm, although this is made much easier by my being a Charlie Kaufman fan."

"On the North Circular, our driver Paul asks about my goody bag. He's read that every nominee has received one, and that they're worth a fortune. I've never heard of any goody bag. Later, my sister mentions this. So do two friends."

Ha, Mike Leigh said fuck.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Life...is a state of mind



BEING THERE (1979). With Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Richard A. Dysart, Ruth Attaway and Jack Warden. Written by Jerzy Kosinski and directed by Hal Ashby.

Peter Sellers died seven months after 'Being There' was released. He certainly knew how to go out. His character in 'Being There,' the enigmatic Chance, is as frustrating and original as they come. The same goes for the film -- it is the strangest, most elusive I've ever seen. Posterity has judged it as provocative, as Sellers' best and most nuanced performance, as both indictment and folly. 'Being There' has the unique ability to seem like it's saying everything -- society is gullible, we believe what we want to believe, television is consumptive, politicians are impotent, man craves platitudes -- while saying nothing. The movie disturbed me, made me uncomfortable. It's thoroughly depressing in its own way, yet it reaches for something. But for what does it reach? I'd like answers.


Sellers and Attaway in the garden.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Did you leave a cigarette burning?



The TOWERING INFERNO (1974) With Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Susan Flannery, and O.J. Simpson. Written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by John Guillermin and Irwin Allen.

The Towering Inferno might just be the biggest, most direct message movie of all time (along with, of course, being the biggest disaster flick). It is a clear-cut indictment of man's obsession with constructing the tallest buildings possible, buildings that don't scrape the sky as much as penetrate it.

The film takes place in the fictional 140-story Glass Tower in San Francisco. A gala celebrating its completion is being held on the top floor, while faulty circuits start a fire around floor 83. The fire soon spreads, trapping the hundred or so guests in the top part of the tower. Steve McQueen plays the fire chief who -- once he realizes the fire cannot be stopped -- must execute an elaborate mission to rescue the guests from the sub-stratosphere.

The two novels on which 'The Towering Inferno' is based were inspired by the construction of the World Trade Center in the early '70s. In one of the books, Thomas Scortia's "The Tower," the climactic rescue from the fictional glass tower is mounted from the north tower of the WTC. In the movie, the rescue is mounted from the nearby Pierre building.

The special effects hold up nicely and are more believable than anything a computer might come up with these days (though the real special effect is the cast). The story is flimsy and simplistic, the dialogue stunted ("You know, there is nothing the living can do to bring back the dead"), the characters forgettable. But the oomph comes via hindsight, at the end of the film, when many are dead. McQueen walks past the building's architect, played by Paul Newman. Both men are sooty and shaken from the ordeal. McQueen looks back, stonefaced, amid debris, and says, "You know we got lucky tonight. Body count's less than 200. Someday you're gonna kill 10,000 in one of those fire traps, and I'll keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them."