It is not uncommon, when people swan about, cooing with praise for the New Hollywood Cinema and the exciting American cinema of the 1970s, to act as if the whole of the film industry was engaged in thrilling experiments that met with broad favor from audiences, who for once in history were interested in being challenged and enlightened by extraordinarily bold cinematic voices, till those poopypants George Lucas and Steven Spielberg ruined everything. This is untrue. This, indeed, fucking untrue: while it's the case that movies like The Godfather and even The Exorcist would surely never be such Zeitgeist-defining megahits in the 2010s (or the 2000s, or the 1990s...), and this is a sorry reflection on later generations of filmgoers, it's also the case that The Poseidon Adventure plausibly could be. And it was right up there on the top of the pile in 1972, right alongside The Godfather. The simple fact is that the movies we now heap money upon, as a culture (effects-driven action films with simple, cookie-cutter storytelling impulses and deliberately shallow one-trait characters), are also the movies that our parents and grandparents did. Only the effects have changed, while the traits enjoyed by the characters, largely, have not. When brainy, adult-themed dramas do well, it's always an exception, not a trend, and pretending that every Joe and Jane Moviegoer in the '70s was three-quarters Film Comment critic does nobody any good. It's not like the $307 million worth of Star Wars viewers in its initial release were being marched into theaters at gunpoint.

So back we go to The Poseidon Adventure, a movie that saved 20th Century Fox from extinction, and made veteran spectacle producer Irwin Allen all sorts of fun new ideas for how he could extend that film's salient characteristics and extraordinary success into film after film after film. It's certainly not that Allen invented the disaster film; Universal's Airport, in 1970, is what really kicked off that decade's iconic vogue for the genre, and there's never been a truly protracted stretch of time without a single major disaster picture of some extraction (for it is a genre that can cover many kinds of stories) in America since the 1930s.

But Allen machined the disaster film into a smooth, easily-reproduced formula; Allen perfected the "all-star ensemble cast" variant of the disaster film; Allen drove the disaster film to its greatest heights for a brief but intense span when many people and studios tried to compete with Allen. Nobody could out-Allen Allen; his films were the biggest of the big until suddenly and shockingly, they weren't. And Irwin Allen was never bigger than in 1974, when he produced The Towering Inferno, the second-highest-grossing movie of the year when the disaster movie was at its pinnacle (Earthquake and Airport 1975 also landed in the domestic box office top 10). Allen and the two studios collaborating to make the film (Hollywood's very first joint production between two majors), 20th Century Fox & Warner Bros., even managed to haul the film up to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. One which probably would have otherwise gone to Best Director nominee John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence, because the Oscars were also the Oscars in the '70s, even though they sometimes pretended not to be.

The Towering Inferno is pretty broadly regarded as the best of Allen's disaster movie cycle; I absolutely do not find this to be the case. Not with The Poseidon Adventure sitting right there: for The Poseidon Adventure has a cast generally given towards campier, more excessive performances. And The Poseidon Adventure has a more outwardly fantastic premise, which makes it both harder to nitpick logical holes and factual inaccuracies, and easier to watch its life-destroying menace with a spirit of jolly escapism. The Poseidon Adventure, most importantly, is 117 minutes long, and The Towering Inferno is two hours and forty-four minutes and some. It requires maybe around half of that, and the rest is all the most vicious kind of padding. The film only needs that insufferable running time to give subplots to the huge number of more or less famous people in the cast, and while it wouldn't be an Irwin Allen joint without a mixture of hot commodities, new starlets whose career never quite turned out, and well-known Old Hollywood stars who could be gotten for cheap, it's damn hard to mount any argument that their presence serves any narrative or emotional function. Presumably, they exist for us to have a host of potential victims to root for and fear for; in practice, it's just that many more trite stock characters to keep track of amongst the state-of-the-art destruction porn cumshots.

Really, it's not entirely fair to the characters, nor to Stirling Silliphant for taking on the impossible task of writing them (he adapted not one, but two books on virtually identical themes: Richard Martin Stern's The Tower, and Thomas N. Scortia & Frank M. Robinson's The Glass Inferno, each of them optioned by one of the collaborating studios). It's just a bloated movie that goes on and on about everything for far too long. Re-watching it,* I was both amazed and discouraged to find that its very best thriller setpiece, involving a man, a woman, and two children agonisingly clambering across a chasm of twisted metal and rebar that used to be a stairwell, takes place before the halfway point; the remainder of the action often as takes place in draggy, overly pacey setpieces that don't demonstrate the filmmakers having any knack for drawing out a sequence to drive the tension up to unendurable levels (Allen directed the action himself, leaving the human material to poor hack John Guillermin, who for his sins was made to direct the epochally terrible Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake as his very next movie), but instead that they have a sorry tendency to strain those sequences till they pop like an overinflated balloon.

The film takes place in the newly-built (in fact, not quite finished) tallest building in the world, which has naturally been built in San Francisco, one of the most earthquake-prone cities in the New World. But it's not an earthquake that the 135-story Glass Tower needs to be afraid of, but the petty corruption of untrammeled capitalism: to shave a few percentages off the budget, wealthy magnate Jim Duncan (William Holden) has encouraged his contractors to keep to the city's building code, and not to the amped-up demands made by the tower's architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who wanted to double-down on everything to make absolutely certain that this most outlandish, unprecedented of buildings would be safe from every eventuality. One of those contractors is Duncan's son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who went cheap on the wiring, and wouldn't you just know that the stress of providing power to such an enormous structure needs more than the minimum. Mere hours before the gala near the top of the party at which the building is to be officially opened in front of the leading lights of Frisco, a fire starts in an 81st floor storage closet. And as a dozen or so people who I'm not going to bother recapping, because absolutely none of them matter as anything but fire fodder, go about their business, the fire spreads and spreads, until the fire department is called in, under the leadership of Battalion Chief Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen), to fight the most desperate blaze they'll ever know, under the most disastrous circumstances. For as the film passionately informs us, fires in buildings that are more that seven stories high are virtually impossible to fight effectively. It is important - so important! - to not build indulgent buildings that are deranged firetraps. This message has been brought to you by Irwin Allen, getting all bizarrely preachy in the last scene.

Okay, so I'll mention one cast member: legendary dancer and generally suave motherfucker Fred Astaire, playing a charmingly broke conman and winning the sole competitive Oscar nomination of his career for, apparently, not being dead yet.

So I am torn: as pure spectacle, The Towering Inferno is the tops. Glorious modelwork, beautifully-shot fire effects, elaborate sets, some beautiful matte that look just fake enough so that you can really appreciate the craftsmanship, the whole nine yards. It's certainly the most handsome and accomplished of the year's disaster pictures (as far as "handsome" goes, it takes overlooking the horribly dated style of the Glass Tower itself, which looks like an insanely complicated liquor cabinet), and we cannot think for a moment that Allen wasn't committed to showing every penny onscreen. It is top quality eye-candy; and so much of it! I won't go over it again, having already said it once, for I would not want to be like The Towering Inferno. But fucka-lucka-ding-dong, it just goes on and on.

Despite the best efforts of most of those involved, the film never takes off as more than just a remarkable collection of glossy violence: the cast is decent, and McQueen in particular does the best job I could imagine of portraying a man reacting to the worsening situation around him with clarity, strength, and a weary thread of humor, but I have to wonder how fair it is to call this all "acting". By the end of the film's first third, character has fallen by the wayside, and all that's left is meat puppetry, with some talented and some not-as-talented faces occupying space in front of the camera and screaming in terror as needed, but not giving much of an inner life to the proceedings. This doesn't keep some of the more grueling, inventive deaths from feeling simple meanspirited - I am particularly distressed by the way that the ultimately very minor role of a middle-aged adulteress played by Susan Flannery is dumped from the movie (like a lot of disaster films, The Towering Inferno loves its moralising: especially in the respective fates of the repentant Duncan and the craven Simmons). Do we really need to see this rendered in such loving detail? I contend that we do not, for the film doesn't have the strength of character to follow through and present itself as a meditation on arbitrary, horrible, unpredictable death. The Poseidon Adventure, a cartoon adventure, does not suffer from this. The hilariously awful killer bee movie The Swarm, Allen's next picture, is so feverishly inept and divorced from anything resembling the lived experience of genuine humans, that it doesn't suffer from it either. The Towering Inferno is just realistic enough, just plausible enough, that it opens up some dark doors that it has no interest in peering into, and it leaves a sour note over much of the film.

But I concede that it's exhilarating. There's no elegance in the jerry-rigged screenplay, hybridising two books and forced deal with petty dick-measuring by McQueen and Newman that leaves the back half of the film wildly imbalanced (it also forced The Towering Inferno to introduce the technique of "diagonal billing": on the poster and in the credits, McQueen's name comes first, as read from the left, but Newman's comes first as read from the top). And there's even less interest in the characters it presents, and there's none at all in the visual compositions, so generic that I can't even come up with anything to say about them. But the fire feels horrifyingly real and present; the sight of it destroying actual sets is every bit as impressive, if less poetically shot, as the "burning of Atlanta" sequence from Gone with the Wind; the sound design, though occasionally a touch metallic and hollow, roars and explodes in a way that movies just did not roar and explode in '74 (I frankly prefer it to the more technologically accomplished Earthquake, though of course I have never heard it in the original, rare Sensurround mix); the score by a young John Williams has early feints towards the lush Romanticism of his most iconic scores from the late '70s and early '80s, and gives the film a soaring, passionate feel that it would otherwise totally lack. It has the goods, even if it doesn't really know what to do with them. But that's beside the point. In 1974, this was eye-popping, revolutionary stuff, and the sheer massiveness of the project and its devotion to showing never-before-seen wonders was obviously more than enough for audiences to get a kick out of it, wonky pacing and flat story and all. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1974
-Paramount releases Roman Polanski's acidic thriller of corruption and wickedness, Chinatown
-Martin Scorsese makes his sole "woman's picture", the ode to old Hollywood and new feminism Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
-The fabled BBS Productions releases its final movie, the outraged Vietnam documentary Hearts & Minds

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1974
-The New German Cinema welcomes an important new voice with Wim Wenders's Alice in the Cities
-Lina Wertmüller directs the Marxist parable Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August in Italy
-With an almost limitless freedom to do whatever he wants, John Boorman chooses to put Sean Connery in a red speedo and has a giant flying stone head disparage the penis in the British sci-fi misfire Zardoz