Action-Adventure, 1960s, Thriller, Crime/Detective

Bullitt (1968)

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Director: Peter Yates
Screenwriters: Harry Kleiner, Alan R. Trustman

This essay is offered as part of the Sixth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2022, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available to view online

By Roderick Heath

Words like classic, iconic, and seminal are very often overused, but feel entirely right in describing Peter Yates’ Bullitt. It’s a film that wielded vast and immediate influence – it’s doubtful William Friedkin’s The French Connection or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (both 1971), or a host of hard-driving action-thrillers in the 1970s and ‘80s, would have been made. It’s difficult to imagine Michael Mann’s oeuvre without its example. Both Robert Altman (in Brewster McCloud, 1971) and Peter Bogdanovich (in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972) would lampoon the title character and his famous car chase. But Bullitt was the hit no-one saw coming. Like Point Blank from the previous year, which plays like Bullitt’s fractured, psychedelic sibling, Bullitt saw an established Hollywood star court a rising British directing talent. In this case Steve McQueen followed the advice of co-screenwriter Alan R. Trustman, who went to see Yates’ Robbery (1967) whilst writing the screenplay, and enthusiastically suggested Yates as director for the project. Yates himself suspected he had been hired just to keep the demanding McQueen busy and out of Warner Bros’ hair, at a time when nobody thought of British directors as action filmmakers. The Aldershot-born Yates, son of an army officer, was a RADA graduate who cut his teeth in British theatre, and also gained some surprisingly consequential experience when it came to fast cars by working as a manager for some racing drivers.

After drifting into film work and becoming a reliable assistant director working under heavyweights like Mark Robson, J. Lee Thompson, and Tony Richardson, Yates made his film directing debut with the Cliff Richard film vehicle Summer Holiday (1963). After Bullitt made him an A-list filmmaker, Yates famously resisted becoming pigeonholed in any particular genre, a resistance that has ironically perhaps diminished his reputation in posterity for the lack of a clear auteurist project. Yates instead oscillated between the kind of hard, realistic, atmospheric crime and action dramas he made his name with and more interpersonal and modest movies. Yates however could find the flexibility within genres too – technically works like Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), The Deep (1977), Suspect (1987), and The House on Carroll Street (1988) exist within the boundaries of the thriller but are all very different, and those all seemingly a world away from the like of Breaking Away (1979) or The Dresser or Krull (both 1983), and genre-straddling exercises like Murphy’s War (1971) and Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). Except perhaps in Yates’ gift for carefully-paced, slow-burn tension, and his attitude to their central characters, with Yates’ admitted fondness for rule-bucking, underdog characters who take chances to ensure their personal vision will win through, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. That facet to Yates’ sensibility was certainly key to the success of Bullitt, which enshrined the heroic figure who is at once an authority figure and also detached from the establishment as an essential one in pop culture.

Bullitt also became the quintessential relic of McQueen himself, as the film sees the actor paring his persona and performance down to its root DNA with the perfect character to inhabit, one who generally only registers the most powerful and profound emotions through the contraction and dilation of his glacial blue eyes and degrees of tautness to his lips. McQueen’s personal passion for fast vehicles and borderline-neurotic obsession with minimalist efficiency in life and art likewise infuses Bullitt, which presented in 1968, and still does in a way, a perfect style guide for cool. The opening credits, which unfold over events cryptic in meaning but eventually explained as the movie unfolds, are themselves a tight thumbnail of iconographic cool, as Lalo Schifrin’s ice-cold jazz theme strums away over credits that slip and slide and leave distorted impressions in the imagery that become portals into the next shot, and swaps between colour and black-and-white. The film title proper is projected over a quartet of impassive, tensely waiting hoods, bathed in cold blue light, like they’re cast for a zombie movie rather than a thriller, the hard lines and clean angles of the modern architecture promising geometric order but laced with tear gas and sweltering under the gaze of Willim A. Fraker’s cinematography.

As this game of aesthetics unfolds, a story also commences, as the hoods smash their way into a suite of chic offices: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), hiding within, is a Chicago underworld lieutenant who’s embezzled a fortune from his organisation’s wire service, and now that he’s been rumbled he eludes his would-be assassins and escapes in a car. One of the hoods (Victor Tayback) lets Ross get away; this is Ross’s brother, indulging his kin one last time. A couple of days later in San Francisco, a man who looks and dresses like Ross and uses the same name (Felice Orlandi) goes through a series of enigmatic encounters, including with a hotel messenger service that proves bewilderingly negative, and a long-distance phone call listlessly observed by the cabbie he’s hired (Robert Duvall). Not long after, this individual is presented to SFPD lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) and his partner ‘Dell’ Delgetti (Don Gordon) by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn): Chalmers, hoping to make a big splash by presenting this Ross as a special witness before a senate crime committee has arranged with Frank and Dell’s Captain, Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland), to protect Ross until the hearing, as Frank’s been recommended as a smooth operator.

Robert L. Fish’s source novel (written with the pseudonymous last name Pike) was entitled Mute Witness; Bullitt on the other hand places its hero front and centre, partly no doubt because it’s a thoroughgoing star vehicle, but also because thanks to the intricate collaboration of script, director, and actor, Frank Bullitt emerges as an intriguing and detailed protagonist. His last name seems to inscribe him through polysemy as an innate man of action, and yet Yates permits our first sight of the great urban swashbuckler as a man tired and cranky and a little pathetic. Here’s the great detective irritably limping downstairs to let Dell in, startled like a nocturnal creature when Dell lifts his blind and lets sunlight in, and warming a cup of instant coffee with a bedside heating gadget. Dell, plainly used to the vicissitudes of Frank’s lifestyle, helping himself to canned milk from his fridge and reading his newspaper. Immediately Frank is posited as a person with an identifiable life, as the film perhaps takes some licence from Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) which similarly, carefully constructed its tough hero as nonetheless an opposite to a James Bond-ish playboy. Bringing in a class-conscious British director to an otherwise very American milieu served McQueen’s penchant for depicting ambitious men who have found themselves adrift or alienated in a social sense, elevated through their talents and smarts or general refusenik cynicism, but still retain strong working class traits. Frank’s head-butting with Chalmers is laced with sociological as well as temperamental and professional tension, Chalmers representing a nominally respectable but actually rapacious ruling class for which Frank is supposed to play sentry.

In other respects Frank pointed to an ideal for an onscreen authority figure that echoed back to James Cagney being cast as a streetwise operator turned FBI agent in “G” Men (1935), as a cop who seems vaguely like a congruent member of the community rather than a member of an occupying army. Frank straddles two zones: he’s fairly young if weathered, good-looking, and has enough good taste and savoir faire to date commercial artist Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and possessed of enough hip attitude to own a Mustang and dig a little cool jazz with dinner, illustrated when he and Cathy go out for the night. He has his own sense of style, his distinct dress and way of wearing his gun separating him from the pack. That McQueen based his characterisation on the film’s technical advisor Frank Toschi, a serving SFPD detective who later, famously investigated the Zodiac killings, gave extra credence to the portrayal. And still Frank keeps at least one toe on the ground, calling in to his station so he’s on call before settling down to eat, and living a most humdrum, borderline vagrant life when he’s not on the job. Yates extends this aspect as he depicts Frank, after a long and gruelling night of work, using a little sleight of hand when he realises he doesn’t have any small change to steal a newspaper, with a furtive glance around to make sure no-one’s seen him, and then going into a corner grocery store, from which he plucks a stack of TV dinners without any inspection and carts them to his apartment.

Whilst Bullitt certainly isn’t a character study of a suffering policeman a la Sidney Lumet’s The Offence and Serpico (both 1973), or Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), Yates laces these droll moments of scruffy, very human behaviour into the film partly to give it convincing texture and to back up the core narrative, which is preoccupied less with the danger Frank faces from criminals, although he certainly does, than the danger from Chalmers. Chalmers is the pure embodiment of the asshole politician, a prince of darkness often followed about by his own personal golem, Police Captain Baker (Norman Fell), a glowering lump of animated clay who, like many others, obeys this Mephistopheles because Chalmers holds out lying promises (in the police’s case a promise for political support) on one hand and threats of hellfire on the other. Yates makes a motif out of associating Chalmers with social rituals and public meeting places, waylaying people and finding their pressure points for enticement and coercion. He’s introduced holding court in a gathering of high society ladies amongst which Frank looks entirely absurd, later intercepts Captain Bennett when he and his family are going to church, watching for their arrival like a well-suited gargoyle, and dogs Frank in the hospital and at an airport.

Frank becomes increasingly uneasy in his assignment when he finds the hotel room Chalmers has stashed Ross in is exceptionally vulnerable to snipers, but leaves Ross in the care of another of his men, Stanton (Carl Reindel). Danger doesn’t need a good aim: two hitmen, Mike (Paul Genge) and Phil (Bill Hickman), using Chalmers’ name, come up to the room. Ross surreptitiously unlocks the door as if expecting someone friendly, only for the killers to shoot Stanton and then Ross himself. Yates’ staging here is brutally impressive, in allowing what was then a potently graphic edge touched with peculiar grimy beauty, globs of spurting blood erupting from Ross as he’s gunned down and hovering for a split second in focus whilst the man is hurled away by the blast, whilst the gunmen remain shadowy, almost monstrous figures, their cool, ultra-professional efficiency noted as the gunman immediately disassembles his shotgun and hides it in his overcoat and removes balls of cotton wool he was using as earplugs to stifle the deafening noise. Opponents truly fit for another ultra-pro like Bullitt. The grievously wounded Stanton still manages to put Frank on alert about Ross’s strange action, and both men are taken to a hospital where Ross is operated on.

The rest of the film unfolds with the tick of a relentless metronome as Frank tries to understand what has just transpired and why, whilst resisting Chalmers’ aggressive attempts to either get Ross on the witness stand or nail down a fall guy for the failure, preferably Frank himself. “Lieutenant, don’t try and evade the responsibility,” Chalmers drones with tightly controlled smugness when Frank tries to ask him about what dealings he had with Ross: “In your parlance, you blew it.” Chalmers also makes clear he doesn’t care about the wounded Stanton, and tries to get Ross’s black surgeon, Dr Willard (Georg Stanford Brown), replaced by someone “more experienced.” Yates offers a brilliant vignette, very subtle in playing but laced with dimensions of socio-political meaning requiring no dialogue to explicate, where Frank, eating a sandwich and sipping a glass of milk, and Willard, washing his hands, give each-other knowing glances as both understand they’ve both made Chalmers’ enemies list – a noble fellowship of victimised factotums at The Man’s mercy despite their aspirations.

Yates’s carefully mediating visuals, often playing with foreground and background, occasionally crystallises potent visual vignettes, as when he spies Frank watching Willard operating on Ross through the OT window, vigilant in electric silence, knowing full well the avalanche that will fall if Ross dies, and a semi-surreal tracking shot as Frank strolls through the ER patients and monitoring equipment surveyed in sworls of white and mechanics, until a young woman’s face enters the frame – Stanton’s girlfriend in tired, listless vigil over the sleeping, injured man, in a moment of low-burning empathy. The hitman Mike makes a foray into the hospital to take another whack at killing Ross: he attempts to be casual in asking directions but the doctor he asks still reports the encounter to Frank. A nurse interrupts the killer before he can use a secreted ice pick on Ross, and Frank tracks him through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital in a sequence that feels like a powerful influence on the paranoid visions of Alan Pakula and Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), a place of glistening utilitarian forms that is nonetheless eerie and ambiguous. Yates and Fraker include a baroque shot of Frank walking into a therapy room, in the shadowy background of the shot, whilst the tracking camera pans onto the hiding hitman, ready with ice pick in hand, in the looming foreground of the shot, the imminence of danger revealed to the audience, all filmed into blue chiaroscuro with rippling pool water flickering on the far wall.

Whilst Bullitt as a film resists some of the more overtly distorted argots of film style of the period, such moments come charged with both efficiency as visual exposition and a glaze of enriching technical prowess and artistry. When Ross dies without extra help from the killers, Frank, knowing Chalmers will shut down the operation and make him the scapegoat if he learns this, talks Willard into keeping this a secret to give Frank time to investigate. Bennett, trusting in Frank’s judgement despite warnings to walk the straight and narrow, plays interference for him, resisting Chalmers and Baker’s pressure. Meanwhile Frank begins assiduously tracing Ross’s movements, working with Delgetti in jaded but capable good cop-bad cop pressuring the desk clerk (Al Checco) of Ross’s hotel to overcome his reluctance after and give up information, then following the trail on to Ross’s cab driver, whose own attentive streak proves vital. Frank also talks to an informant, Eddy (Justin Tarr), who fills him in Ross’s background and the events in Chicago. Frank’s efforts to fool Chalmers also have the unintended but lucky consequence of obliging the hitmen to follow Frank around town in the belief he can lead them to him. When the cabbie drops Frank back at his Mustang in a parking lot, Frank soon realises he’s being tracked, and begins a nerveless process of leading the hitmen on and then using his knowledge of the city streets to turn the tables and get behind them. At which point the hitmen fasten their seatbelts and step hard on the gas.

Thus begins the most famous and consequential scene of Bullitt, as the hitmen try to outrun Frank up and down the hills of midtown San Francisco before making a break for the highway out of town. Where Don Siegel, in The Line-up (1958) and again in Dirty Harry found obsessive fascination in San Francisco’s ravioli explosion of freeways and overpasses in their stark, charmless modernity and frenetic functionality, and Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958) had stuck to the dreamy precincts of the bay, Yates decisively found the vertiginous slopes of the Mission District the ideal landscape for car chase action, at once like they’re dancers in a ballet, and as if the earthbound drivers are nonetheless trying to mimic astronauts and take off for space every time they fly over a shelf and careen down a slope. Editor Frank Keller won an Oscar essentially for his work on the scene. Car chases were of course nothing new in action movies, having been a constant since the days of Mack Sennett in Hollywood. What made Bullitt’s chase cutting-edge then, and still-thrilling now, was the immersive fierceness of Yates’ and his crew’s staging and filming. Where what would once have been filmed all at a distance on some cleanly flowing road here exploits the tyranny of the unsuitability of the topography an aspect of the action, and completely avoiding rear projection, camera speed tricks, and other gimmickry, complete with close-ups of McQueen driving at high speed.

Yates toggles between manifold camera angles including shots taken within the cars moving fast down chassis-jarring angles, zoom shots moving and in and out to emphasise a documentary veracity, sometimes allowing the cars to move out of focus or become momentarily lost in hose-piping shots that at once add to the visual excitement and turn the action into semi-abstract art, whilst the editing discontinuity seems right in the age of the action replay. The whole sequence, including the cat-and-mouse stalk and then the roaring of the motorised lions, takes 10 minutes. One irony behind the scene’s impact lay in Yates and team forgoing precise realism, splicing together as they did multiple takes to amplify its symphonic impact, with attendant continuity goofs, with damage to the cars coming and going and one green Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be looping in a time warp. Yates’ feel for realism is nonetheless still crucial – the streets are quiet but not suddenly, conveniently empty, as Frank is briefly frustrated by cars blocking him at first from giving pursuit. The bucking bronco moves on the sloping streets give way to fast, flowing motion once the two cars get onto a parkway, as Mike takes the chance to shoot at Frank with his shotgun. The ultra-pros in their element, stalking each-other on the tarmac veldt, with only the very faint smile Bill gives when he thinks he’s lost Frank behind providing a hint of emotion.

But action is also characterisation: Frank swerves to avoid hitting a toppled motorcyclist, almost losing his prey as he crashes onto the dusty verge, but manages to catch up again. The chase has a structural and figurative similarity to the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), its mock-ancient equivalent, with Mike’s attempts to shoot Frank’s car like Messala’s use of a whip in the earlier film proving a recourse that invites self-destruction in breaking the informal rules of the chase, Frank forced to ram the assassins’ Dodge off the road, and the killers crash into a gas station, blowing up with it, whilst Frank skids to a halt. This climax to the scene was almost a total disaster due to an accident in the filming, but Keller saved it with clever cutting. Another smart touch here was removing music scoring from the actual fast chase portion, instead allowing the tyre squeals and engine grunts to provide music of a kind. Yates might well have been thinking of Jules Dassin’s silent heist scenes in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) in ironically making the suspense sequence the one that doesn’t need amplification in that fashion. The sequence did wonders for Mustang sales, too. The streamlined form of the Mustang seemed to combine the sleek aesthetic of modern, often European design with the muscle of a good American roadster, and so is the perfect style object for the film, as Yates blends aspects of cinema cultures to create a sleek and chitinous new form. Of course, movies are deceiving: in actuality the villains’ Dodge Charger was so much faster than the Mustang Hickman had to keep slowing down to let it catch up.

Bisset’s presence signifies a similar fruition, emblematic posh British beauty transplanted somehow to American shores, bringing a fresh gust of Swinging London chic. Cathy provides Frank with his anchor in the everyday world and also one who elevates him out of it. Bisset’s role in the film isn’t large and yet her character provides genuine substance as a presence in Frank’s story. Their growing relationship is given an amusing underlining when, with his own car wrecked after the chase, Frank gets Cathy to drive him in her trim primrose roadster in tracking down a lead. This however proves to invite trouble, as Frank finds a murdered woman at the end of the trail, and Cathy accidentally becomes witness. Cathy also provides Yates with another pole to explore his own dualism: as a transplanted artist she finds Frank immensely appealing but is also repelled by the things he countenances every day, embodying Yates’ own oscillation between warm and intimate stories and jagged tales of violence and exile. Observing that the murdered woman barely causes Frank to bat an eyelid, demands to be let out of the car on the drive home and runs down to a stretch of shoreline where, once Frank catches up to her, she plaintively notes they live in different worlds, and wonders what would happen to them in time if they continue together. “Time starts now,” Frank responds simply.

Yates films this exchange in extreme long zoom shot, lending a voyeuristic aspect but also a gauzy lacquer of romanticism despite the fraught and ugly feeling being invoked. Purposefully oblique framing hides Bisset’s mouth by McQueen’s shoulder, illustrating the potential for emotional disconnection between them, where when he reverses the shot Frank’s calm, simple answer is entirely clear, assuring Cathy that however taciturn he acts the one advantage is gives him, far from being emotionally anaesthetised, he knows rather what he wants and needs with a special rigour denied the more frivolous. Cathy and Frank’s exchanges have a structural similarity to Frank’s contretemps with Chalmers, in that both demand surrender from him, if with entirely different motives, Chalmers demanding obeisance and fault, Cathy prodding Frank to be a loving man, each on a ticking clock. The real source of tension for most of Bullitt is Frank’s efforts to keep moving, like an ice skater who’s ventured onto dangerously thin ice but can only keep driving for the opposite side, before the hammer Chalmers so desperately wants to drop lands. This is also a source of sour humour, particularly when Chalmers, having dragged Frank out of the shower to make more demands over the phone, then puts Baker on the line to emphasise the threat: “Now you listen to me,” Baker utters, only to hear dial tone.

Bennett’s stalwart defence of Frank as his actual boss sees Yates expertly using Oakland’s stocky physique and accompanying terse performance like a rampart, fending off the wicked. The film’s true climax then isn’t the car chase or the shoot-out finale, but the concluding scenes between Frank and Chalmers. Frank’s diligence and risk-taking are finally justified as, after finally revealing that Ross has died to Chalmers and Baker, Frank waits for the dead man’s fingerprints to be relayed to Chicago and their identification returned via laborious 1960s faxing. Chalmers, Baker, and Bennett wait in silent expectation whilst Frank’s expression turns concertedly pokerfaced, except with his eyes ablaze, betraying his awareness that his entire career and life will hinge on the next few minutes and what comes out of the fax machine. What emerges, as Frank by this time plainly already suspected but needed to prove, was that the dead man calling himself Ross was actually a used car salesman named Renick, a lookalike hired by the real Ross to pretend to be him long enough to take the heat off him: the murdered woman was Renick’s wife, killed to silence her and let him leave the country on Renick’s passport. Frank’s tone barely changes as he informs Chalmers he had him guarding an imposter even as he delivers the killer blow.

Chalmers is not so easily defeated, however, as he insists on following Frank as he and Del head to the airport in hope of netting Ross before he can fly out, still hoping to get him to testify. By this point Frank abandons any further pretence of putting up with the politician when Chalmers suggests the case has all the trappings for a publicity coup for them both, telling him point blank, “I don’t like you,” and riposting to Chalmers’ sanguine suggestions that “Integrity is something you sell the public” and “We all must compromise,” with a curt statement: “Bullshit.” Here Bullitt managed something borderline miraculous in presenting a cop hippies could cheer for. The notion that the truest public servants are the ones who take the lumps from both ends of society without much reward beyond their own inner satisfaction is of course a romantic one, and one that’s been through endless variations since, to the point where it may have outlived its worth.

It was also one becoming more fashionable in the late ‘60s, a time when, then as now, leadership as a broad concept had taken awful blows. Where, say, James Bond was the revenge of primitivism in an epoch so futuristic to be atavistic, Frank Bullitt provided a full-proof blueprint for his spiritual opposite, a romantic hero tailored for a cynical age, someone who actually gives a damn about the public good but also under no illusions about what society actually is – that is, Chalmers is the face of society, venal, corrupt, predatory, and masked with righteous stances. Bullitt’s relative lack of interest in its official villain Ross only more firmly emphasises this as the real drama, but Ross is also the naked face of it, greedy and murderous and manipulative, throwing up doppelgangers to distract and confuse: Renick is his patsy but Chalmers is his real puppet, used and discarded once he’s provided the necessary distraction. At the same time Yates constantly suggests the soul-wearying strain all this puts Frank under, as he must keep operating after seeing friends maimed and deal out death himself. Of course, McQueen’s face was carved by the movie gods to convey existential distress. The film’s ending is another intense, slow-burn sequence that uses similar elements to the car chase to very different effect, again spurning music and filling the soundtrack with incessant airplane racket.

Frank and Dell comb the airport for the real Ross and find he’s boarded a taxiing plane: when the plane is called back and Frank ventures aboard, he spots Ross, who jumps off the plane and leads the detective on a chase across the runways, the bizarre sight of monstrous metal planes with their churning turbines making enough noise to make the dead, and make tracking by ear impossible, cruising by as Ross eludes Frank in the scantly-lit precincts between the brilliant runways, and Frank barely avoids being shot and run over by a 707. Mann paid obvious homage to this in the finale of Heat (1995). Ross manages to get back inside a terminal, and almost reaches the doors as Frank and Dell close in: Ross guns down a cop as he tries to make a break, demanding that Frank shoot him turn, leaving Ross’s very dead form splayed on broken glass and the airport in panicky chaos. Chalmers, eventually cheated of his prize, drives away to the next opportunity in the back of a limousine, whilst the sirens echoing about the airport gain a strange, amplified loudness, as if mimicking the dizzy ringing in Frank’s ears. The weird, queasy brilliance of the film’s final moments lies in the way it confirms Frank did what he had to to a very bad guy, making him at last victorious in this tale, whilst also making clear it still costs him something vital. He returns home to find, by way of salutary grace, Carol asleep in his bed, having elected to remain with him for at least another day, but also faced with the eyes of the killer in the mirror.

Bullitt is available to watch on many streaming services, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Redbox.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

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Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, War

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Roderick Heath

Robert Wise was a professional. Such a description could be read as praise both high and faint, and it’s long been applied to Wise in both senses. A man whose early life was framed profoundly by the Great Depression’s impact on his family’s expectations and appreciation for the safe harbour working for RKO Pictures gave him, Wise spent over a decade learning film craft. Graduating to editing, Wise was Oscar-nominated for his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), where he laboured closely with the tyro blow-in to create the film’s unique textures and layered sense of the medium’s expressive modes and possibilities, through such tricks as dragging film strips over the editing room floor to reproduced the rough look of old newsreel footage. Wise knew film as a physical thing better than most anyone else in the business, as an organism of pictures and sounds wound together in complex, precisely ordered cords. Wise was soon pressed into service to patch together a releasable version of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) after Welles and RKO parted ways, tacking on a hastily shot final scene that was nominally true to the source novel but against Welles’ more downbeat intent. Wise soon came into the orbit of another genius impresario, if a radically different personality, in Val Lewton, whose series of suggestive horror films had proven a quiet boon for the studio.

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Wise made his directing debut on Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) when he was called upon to replace the first director, Gunther von Fritsch. That film belied its nominal basis as a horror movie to become more a darkly poetic paean to childhood. His third film for Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945), proved a masterpiece of psychological horror that saw Wise evolve his own stern, statuesque take on the template Lewton had developed with Jacques Tourneur. Wise was launched on a career that saw him able to master just about any genre he turned his hand to: stone-hard noir films, intellectually curious science fiction works, tough war movies and social-realist dramas, even musicals. Such capacities helped him rise by the mid-1960s into one of Hollywood’s most efficient and reliable filmmakers, capturing Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), two immensely popular movies that nonetheless still testify to how compartmentalised film appreciation can be, as they’ve never been in the slightest bit cool, in spite of the stylish and inventive filmmaking evinced in both.

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Wise was both esteemed and honoured by his industry and held in opprobrium by many critics for his dread status as a safe pair of hands, and he pulled off the trick of working long past the time when many old studio hands like him had been put out to pasture. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock and his thrillers or John Ford’s love of the western, Wise’s wide-ranging talents have long confused critical attention. But to scratch the surface of Wise’s films is to see his formative work with Welles and Lewton lingering in his shooting style and expressive lexicon, and to look past the frame of genre is to see threads of interest and refrains of substance running through Wise’s choices of material. Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles immediately appealed to Wise. It’s not hard to see Wise’s identification with the character of Jake Holman, another young man given his slot in a disciplined organisation and mastering technical arts, seeking the elusive hope of reigning over his own small realm, where proficiency might be sufficient to guarantee stability in life even in the midst of terrible upheaval.

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Wise had trouble getting studio backing for making a film of this downbeat tale based in dated geopolitics. When he did finally gain backing production was delayed by weather in Taiwan, where he planned to shoot, and Wise took on The Sound of Music, ironically, as something to fill in the time before he could make his passion project. Wise converted McKenna’s book against all odds into a commercial success, in part because it offered a strong showcase for star Steve McQueen, who also gained his lone Oscar nomination for playing Holman. By the time Wise brought the film to the big screen, too, McKenna’s period tale of faltering imperialism was also starting to look more prognosticative than historical, as the Vietnam War was becoming a hot topic. Wise was steadfastly against US involvement in the conflict, and The Sand Pebbles presaged the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) in allowing him to offer backdoor commentary. It also dramatized the experience of the cultural moment in watching a formerly disinterested and focused individual slowly become aware of his surrounds and forced to make his own moral judgements against the tide of expected behaviour.

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The Sand Pebbles is in many ways a character study in an epic’s clothing, following McQueen’s Holman from the moment he begins his journey up the Yangtze River to his solitary death at its end. Holman, an engineer in the American navy, has been assigned to a gunboat, the San Pablo. The period is the late 1920s, a time when the US Navy was enforcing American commercial interests and sustaining a form of peace in China’s cripplingly schismatic post-imperial moment. Holman thinks he’s finally gained just what he wants, a boat just large enough to need his talents and small enough to give him an engine he can run to his own satisfaction. Holman’s hunt for an engine room he can lock himself in and run in peace proves to still be frustratingly elusive once he joins the boat, however, as he finds the craft has evolved as a microcosm of the political situation. The American sailors exiled to the San Pablo, or the ‘Sand Pebbles’ as they nickname it, are on the furthest fringes of the national consciousness and at the bottom of the military list of concerns. They compensate by leading pampered lives, their needs are tended to by a populace of Chinese coolies, for whom even the scant pay turned their way is a good living, an arrangement that also suits the boat’s commander, Lt Collins (Richard Crenna), who likes to keep his crew handy for action, should the need ever arise.

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Holman’s journey to join the San Pablo sees him thrust into the company of some other westerners on a ferry, listening to their discussions of big political matters and the rumblings of discontent with disinterest, and warning off pretty young Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), journeying upriver like to him serve as a teacher at a mission, that “girls don’t talk to China sailors.” Holman’s experience keeps intersecting with Eckert’s, however, provoking a tentative relationship. They’re trapped however on two sides of a dichotomy rooted however in the same basic fact: Eckert belongs to the missionary service, which considers itself above political ructions and dedicated purely to the betterment of the Chinese populace, but which one of the shipboard voices of wisdom warns her at the start represents a form of cultural imperialism to the locals only tolerated because of the harder, military version Holman serves. Eckert works under the idealistic Jameson (Larry Gates) at the Shining Light Mission, who becomes the unwitting, and unwilling, justification for Collins to launch an armed expedition to rescue them as the political situation deteriorates and China degenerates into civil strife. Holman inadvertently disrupts life on the San Pablo when he joins her. He finds the engine room is filled with coolies who don’t really understand the motor, but simply follow the instructions of their boss, Chien (Henry Wang).

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Chien jealously guards his tiny fief, to the point that when Holman embarrasses him he tries to cook him with a sudden steam release as he inspects the engine. The coolies aboard are overseen generally by haughty old mandarin Lop-eye Sheng (Paul Chun), whose authority is both unofficial and insidious. Holman’s lone real pal on the boat is Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who falls in love with Maily (Maryat Andriane), a missionary-educated barroom hostess being forced to work off a debt to a gangster, Shu (James Hong). During a river patrol the gunboat breaks down when Holman’s warnings are ignored, and Chien is killed during repairs, in an accident that’s the result of his own poor maintenance. Holman is ordered to train a new boss coolie, so he chooses Po-han (Mako). Holman labours in spite of the young man’s poor English and lack of education to explain just how the engine works, becoming fond of his receptive pupil in the process. When another crewman, Stawski (Simon Oakland), bullies Po-han, Holman socks him. The incident is covered up and Collins denies Lop-eye’s demand Po-han be fired, as the commander feels the occasional need to take Lop-eye down a peg. Holman baits Stawski by proposing a proper boxing match between him and Po-han: Holman thinks the scrappy little Chinese guy can defeat the hulking Stawski, and hopes to win enough money to pay off Maily’s debt.

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McKenna’s novel was based in his personal experiences, but also bore the distinct influences of other works in a similar vein. The detailed depiction of a fetid and frustrated branch of the US armed forces between world wars, revolving around an apolitical outcast hero, recalls James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, whilst the climax is reminiscent of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s the setting and the tale’s grim, unremitting vision of slow degeneration into chaos that sets it apart from both, where the great struggle against fascism was still looming for luckless heroes; here Holman is a victim of shifting tides that see the white, western fantasy of civilising the world according to its own precepts being finally beaten back and forced into a newly introspective posture. Wise had tackled a similar story before on Destination Gobi (1952), except staged there in reverse in both geographical and philosophical drift; a closer likeness was the study in besiegement and hanging-by-the-fingernails war effort and accompanying moral danger in The Desert Rats (1953).

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Wise had a fascination for odyssey tales, stories of benighted people pushed to extremes by their own perverse motives, and a love for dramas driven by characters who represent different ways of conceiving the world, depicted in closely revolving binaries. In his later career, Wise’s films began to bear an increasingly clear and sardonic commentary on his reputation as a professional and a technician, as he took on projects revolving around characters dependant on their tools, faced with crisis as their works and implements fail them, their incapacity to understand why life doesn’t function in the same clear and mechanistic way leading them into dreadful traps of fate and conscience. These ideas connect movies seemingly as random as The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), and Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), but it has also been bobbing around in his films since The Body Snatcher and his noir works like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

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The narrative also evokes Wise’s overtly pacifistic, if frighteningly contradictory, mythology exercised in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), except that here the pretences towards utopianism represented by Jameson and the missionaries are wedged between more worldly forces. The possibility that might makes right has been abandoned. Holman and Collins and also Jameson represent the kind of duologue who recur throughout Wise’s films, although where many such pairings in his films, from Grey and McFarlane in The Body Snatcher through to even Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music — characters with radically different moral precepts and ways of seeing the world bound together in a close and fraught relationship. Except that Holman and Collins don’t argue their values or radically different perspectives, but offer them instead in gestures and arias of feeling offered in their rank-enforced decorum. As he had on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise would transmute their dynamic into something more positive-minded in a science fiction work, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, where the conflict between discovery and discipline, rigidity and evolution takes on a radically different form but follows the same logical course.

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Although set at the time of the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek, the portrayal of the nascent Chinese nationalist movement is nonetheless styled to be more reminiscent of Communists, in their rhetoric and appearance. The regular drill sessions of the San Pablo’s crew sees them going through their paces in pretending to see off a hostile throng, enjoyed and mocked by a daily crowd who flee laughingly before the water spurts and steam plumes turned their way, until at least the San Pablo find themselves doing it for real, up against a suddenly naked and wintry fury. Holman is shamed in his disdain for the coolie system on board the San Pablo with the totemic phrase, “It’s his rice bowl,” allowing exploitation to continue under the guise of providing a living. The imperialist way also requires retarding all possibility of social change and advancement for the sake of general good order, represented by the rigorously enforced caste system aboard ship. The slow degradation of the San Pablo and her crew as representatives of their nation is first signalled when a Chinese general (Richard Loo) forces Bordelles and his escort to be marched disarmed back through the streets of Changsha, under a rain of refuse from crowds gleeful at the toppling of the strutting foreigners. The humiliated sailors are distraught – Bordelles commands his uniform to be burnt – except for Holman, who takes the event in his stride. Soon the ship is besieged by protestors demanding they leave, but the river level leaves the San Pablo stranded, rusting and abandoned by the coolies, forcing the resentful crew to do their job.

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Loss of face is diagnosed as a potent fear amongst the Chinese bigwigs Chien and Lop-eye, who stage punitive revenges in response to it, but the hapless Yankees prove equally hysterical and helpless before their own remorseless reduction to mere unwelcome interlopers and then quasi-renegades before the population they once policed. Lop-eye blames, credulously or not, Chieng’s death on a curse Holman put on the engine, a literal ghost in the machine, and throughout The Sand Pebbles individuals are crushed just as unheedingly as the unfortunate Chieng under the pistons. Almost every major character in the film dies like a dog in the course of trying to act upon their ambitions or principles. Po-han is caught and tortured by a furious mob, who use him as a prop in terrible political theatre in working for the Americans, obliging Holman to shoot him. Frenchy and Maily make a break to live together, but Frenchy dies from pneumonia caught sneaking off to join his wife and Maily is killed by thugs, possibly gangsters or nationalists, whilst Holman is blamed for her murder in the belief he was her lover. Jameson is gunned down by his former friends after Collins’ “rescue” effort sparks a local war, in spite of waving papers confirming that he’s made himself a stateless person. Jameson and Eckert’s student militia protector and former student Cho-jen (Paul Chun) is killed by Holman during a battle to penetrate a boom strung across the river, and Holman and Collins both die thousands of miles from home in a desperate rear-guard fight.

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It’s remarkable that Wise was able to sell such a bitter story to a mass audience. The Sand Pebbles mediates its darkness with fillips of crowd-pleasing, like Stawski and Po-han’s boxing match, which sees the diminutive yet physically dynamic Chinese man eventually work up the wherewithal to bring down his bullying opponent, and Frenchy and Holman’s intervention to snatch away Maily after Shu tries to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder to some sleazy Americans. The film’s only true weakness lies in part in this mediation, as these aspects border on the caricatured at points. Also, The Sand Pebbles was released at a time when a certain level of existential angst was considered pretty cool in a movie, and McQueen was arguably playing a version of his basic star persona, particularly reminiscent of the proto-beatnik soldier he played in Hell Is For Heroes (1962). Wise had helped solidify Paul Newman’s screen image with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), playing one of Wise’s favoured brand of bewildered, naive heroes, and given McQueen’s famous emulation of Newman’s career it made great sense for him to slip into a similar part.

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The quality of The Sand Pebbles’ collaborators is arresting in itself, and its eight Oscar nominations fairly reflected this, even if the film finally won nary a one. Wise cast a battery of excellent character actors, including Oakland, Crenna, Gates, Hong, Loo, and Joe Turkel. Andriane, an acting ingénue better remembered as the nominal author and subject of the notorious erotic tome Emmanuelle, is fairly good as the brittle, anxious, religious girl who believes herself cursed for her sins. I can’t think of another film where Attenborough ever played an American, and yet he handles the role with the same casual openness and natural presence he always projected, conveying Frenchy’s strong yet innocent love for Maily, depending on Attenborough gift for playing anxious, repressed figures, wearing an air of pathos like a wetsuit. Jerry Goldsmith’s score helped make him a go-to movie composer, establishing a mood of stark, grand yet menacing exoticism in the opening credits that sets in play the mood of an oncoming age of cultural crack-up.

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McQueen’s characters so often only showed their inner lives through finite registers of his cold blue eyes, otherwise trying to maintain their workaday veneer, expressed in concise and stoic physicality. Holman presents a variation as he’s not as remote as other McQueen characters nor as coolly mature. Holman is rather nudged gradually out of a state of semi-perpetual adolescence over the course of the film, starting as a man Jameson feels comfortable in describing as one of the type who just wants the navy to take care of them, casually racist but also boyishly fond of children. He becomes, as Eckert notes, a teacher just like her, taking pride in making a real engineer of Po-han, and is provoked to become increasingly rebellious towards the institution that has been his home. Wise allows time to depict Holman’s education of Po-han with a gently humorous sensibility, a sequence that follows the earlier sequence of the disastrous repair job that nonetheless allows Holman’s love of machinery to become almost palpable, articulated through Wise’s precise diagramming of the engine room as a space, and observation of Holman at work. Even when the machinery fails and crushes flesh and bone, Holman calmly disassembles and reassembles the problem part in his pure faith. Wise’s sensitisation to process and craft here is telling on both a storytelling level, bringing the audience into Holman’s mental space, whilst also underlining his own subtext. The smooth running of anything is the result somewhere along the line of someone who’s damn good at their job and finds it sufficient unto itself as a calling.

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McQueen and Mako make for a fascinating study of contrasts on screen in large part because they were both very physical actors, but in completely different styles: McQueen’s poised and efficient movements versus Mako’s fluid, scrambling dexterity. Po-han’s boxing match is a little masterpiece of slapstick as he tries to survive the bout without committing to it, too used to being the low man on the totem pole, until Holman is at last able to stir both his sense of personal need, in wanting to stay aboard, and also fellowship, in wanting to save Holman from losing money. McQueen’s physical expressivity on the other hand carries the weight of tragic drama with the most measured movements, as he furiously shovels coal after shooting Po-han, or his quick, deft, yet somehow utterly devastating movements as he reboards the San Pablo after killing Cho-jun; Holman is a man almost aghast at his own capacity to keep operating smoothly even after he’s just axed a man in the stomach, but grateful for this talent at the same time. Holman’s great crisis of choice comes when Po-han is being tortured, driven to take the risk of shooting his pal in spite of the chance of starting a war if he misses, and with Collins dashing to stop him. Collins comes to regard Holman as a nuisance and demands after the shooting that he ask for transfer as soon as events permit, something Holman assures him he will do, in a scene laced with clashing brands of contempt constrained by nothing more or less than the material of their uniforms.

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Collins’ status, both imposed and self-adopted, as the lone bulwark before chaos and representative of national strength and pride sees him tolerating the strange system aboard his ship in preference of the appearance of order and smooth working to its actuality. As events bear down upon him, they inspire him to provide a self-fulfilling prophecy as his actions provoke exactly the kind of violence he proposes to put down. Crenna’s performance is something of an antithesis to his today better-known part in the Rambo series as the soldier’s soldier; here his portrait of a self-appointed superman slowly devolving into raging, suicidal-homicidal neurosis is pungent, with his increasingly intense yet remote stair and tight-wound muscularity as if he can barely fit within his own skin.

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Collins’ own calvary comes when his men begin to refuse his orders as, blockaded by the nationalists demanding Holman be handed over in the belief he murdered Maily, they start chanting a demand for Holman to hand himself over rather than square off against the besiegers. Collins takes over a machine gun and, after firing a blast in the water to fend off the blockade, almost turns to gun down his own men, before checking himself, handing over authority to his second in command, Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson), and heading into his cabin to face a long night staring at his pistol in temptation to self-extermination. But larger political events hand him the chance instead to get lots of other people as well as himself killed in an auto-da-fe.

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Wise was the opposite a showy director, but all of his images have an adamantine strength, the rigorousness of his framings that manage to communicate without retreating into airiness, and yet also adapting into its era’s mode for epic cinema in the relative spaciousness it offers to tell its story. The film probably doesn’t look as radical now as it might have done in its day, in Wise’s complete eschewing of many of the usual shortcuts for this kind of moviemaking subject, avoiding back projection, model work, and Caucasian actors made up to play Chinese characters.

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The battle to break through the boom junks is a marvel of tight-wound directing, with Wise allowing the action to come on at the ponderous pace of the San Pablo, approaching the enemy at a slow chug, bullets careening off the hull, Collins hovering at the bridge windows in challenging one to give him his one-way ticket to Valhalla. Slow pace becomes subtly fluid and quicker in dashing lateral camera movements track the actors taking up station for battle, and then leaping into a fray that’s punishingly intimate, with much of the San Pablo’s crew being killed or terribly wounded in the process. The sequence climaxes in the raw shock of Holman, trying to hack his way through the boom rope, forced to defend himself and slaying Cho-jun. Death and carnage come on with reflexive speed and jarring pathos, satisfying the need in such a long, grim tale to pay off with some action at last whilst also finding nothing to celebrate in it.

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The film’s proper finale is even less consoling, but its sees Wise hit perhaps the directing peak of his career. Collins, Holman, and some other crewmen head to the Shining Light Mission to bring down the missionaries, but cannot talk them into leaving. Jameson is killed and Collin dies, after Holman at last makes his choice to remain with Eckert, refusing Jameson’s commands. But Holman is nonetheless force to follow Collins in battling off Chinese soldiers to allow Eckert and his fellow crewmen to escape. This eerie scene takes place in the mission’s vast courtyard, a reappropriated piece of Chinese infrastructure that finally becomes a nightmarish trap, mocking voices echoing out of the dark, bullets whistling and striking down men like the thunderbolts of a contemptuous god for human pretence. This sequence in particular seems to have had a strong influence on the Do Long bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979), with its assailed American warriors lost in a distant night listening to the taunts and cries of a determined enemy. The use of suggestion, the evocation of an almost cosmic dread through careful deployment of sound, confirms how much the Lewton imprint stuck with Wise, the sense almost of a landscape coming to life to clutch and defeat the humans scurrying upon it. Holman dies, shouting out his confusion in the face of such forces (“What the hell happened?”), propped up between the farm machines that should have been his next, natural life project, perched between the sword and the ploughshare. The difference between his death and Collins, however, is that Holman dies to save the life of someone he loves.

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