Fox has not forgotten producer Irwin Allen’s mantra of “give me more, and make it bigger” in the special editions of the Master of Disaster’s two greatest productions, “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” As bloated as the films they lionize, extras in both sets feature documentaries on everything from fire special effects to the religious undertones of “Poseidon.” While it may be overkill, what still comes through is what is missing from the current incarnation of the genre: the low camp value of seeing A-listers, screen legends and “Hollywood Squares” luminaries battle against the forces of nature.
Hands down, Shelley Winters’ swim through an underwater hull is perhaps Allen’s most iconic moment. As the DVDs attest, there was a bit of madness that went along with Allen’s drive to make these movies, even as the industry was fixated on smaller pics like “Easy Rider” and “The French Connection.” Colorful in his perpetually jet-black dyed hair and even wearing a pink leisure suit, Allen convinced Fox to make “Poseidon” — about a ship turned upside down by a New Year’s tidal wave — and Stirling Silliphant to write the screenplay. When the studio dropped the ball at the 11th hour and agreed to finance only half of its $5-million budget, Allen simply walked across the street to Hillcrest Country Club, found two friends playing gin rummy, and got them to guarantee the rest.
“Poseidon” became one of the biggest hits of the ’70s, and Allen naturally had to top himself both in effects and stars, and convinced both Fox and Warner Bros. to jointly finance the $13 million “Inferno,” about a raging fire that strikes the world’s largest skyscraper during its opening event. Not only did Silliphant return, but Allen wooed Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to appear together, along with an all-star cast.
Much attention is paid to special effects, which are amazing in an age where computer graphics didn’t exist. And in his commentary on “Inferno,” critic F.X. Feeney deconstructs the film in such a straightforward manner that it is no longer bewildering why the pic got an Oscar nomination for best picture. Irony is left to Ronald Neame, the unlikely helmer of “Poseidon.”
“We all felt we were slumming it, except perhaps Irwin Allen,” he admits. Now 95 and still sharp as ever, Neame brings things down to earth by admitting that the pic probably appealed more to 10- to 15-year-olds than sophisticated critics.
And he wishes that he had asked Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine to turn it down a notch in their acting. But that may be why the pic earns cult status, in an age where actors at least had a fighting chance to trump the elements of special effects.