Part 30: 1975
The Towering Inferno
Lenny (hidden gem)
The Godfather II (winner)
OK, this one was hard to watch during freaking quarantine.
Written and produced by Francis Ford Coppola in between The Godfather and The Godfather II (there really ain’t no rest for the wicked, huh?), The Conversation is a claustrophobic thriller about the violation of civil liberties. Destruction of privacy, alienation, guilt, paranoia and eavesdropping are just some of the 20th century threats that plague this underrated tale of a guy just trying to do his job.
The film opens on a San Francisco plaza filled with people. There’s a guy with a shotgun microphone on a nearby building, holding his position on a young couple, Ann and Mark (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), who appear to be the subject of this investigation. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the lead surveillance expert, following the couple around on ground-level.
Back in their inconspicuous van, Harry’s partner Stan (John Cazale) is basically ready to clock out and grab a burger. He’s irreverent about the work that Harry is so passionate about, and it almost continuously threatens their relationship.
Outside of work, Harry is a very closeted person, taking his privacy to the limits. His door bears 4 or 5 locks, his number is unlisted. Not even his most intimate acquaintances know anything about him. He lives alone, finding pleasure in playing his saxophone and listening to jazz records.
While listening to and piecing together the conversation he and his team recorded, Harry and Stan hear an ambiguous message that sounds like a murder plot. Concerned about their safety, Stan inquires who hired them for this job, but Harry tells him he doesn’t know.
Shocker – he does. But it’s not until later that all the puzzle pieces start fitting together. As Harry is pulled deeper and deeper into a conspiracy, paranoia soon overtakes him, causing him to increase his privacy measures and plunge into a mental crisis.
For being such a private and careful person, the irony here is that Harry is actually pretty bad at his job. Though his colleagues think he’s a genius, he is essentially hoisted by his own petard. He succeeds in recording a close conversation at a public place, but then allows his tapes to be stolen. He triple-locks his apartment door, but the landlord is still able to enter with a copy of the key and leave him a birthday present. He believes his phone to be unlisted, yet both his landlord and his client have it. At a tradeshow, he is humiliated when a rival competitor confesses that he was easily able to bug Harry with a free pen that he slid into his pocket. Even his mistress claims that she knows him by how he enters her apartment and she once saw him “…up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.”
In an era of fake news and misconstrued stories, what makes The Conversation so relevant is that Harry’s taped conversation is pieced together in a way that makes sense to him. His three recordings of the same interaction all contain separate pieces that should give him an overall idea of what Ann and Mark were discussing, but the problem is that Harry’s paranoia causes him to fill in the gaps under the influence of his own prejudices and emotions. When you don’t have the whole story, you’re left with just your interpretations – which can take you down a completely different, and sometimes wrong, path.
Harry’s personal life isn’t the only thing veiled in uncertainty. Coppola fills the movie with opaque surfaces that simultaneously hide and reveal. A confessional screen, a sheet of plastic hanging in Harry’s office, the milky glass partition between hotel balconies, even the cool grey raincoat that Harry always wears, regardless of the weather, help prove that we’re never quite sure whether what we’re seeing is actually there.
The ending of The Conversation is sad in that it shows us a man who has tried so hard to remove himself from “the grid”, yet finds that all of his barriers are worthless. It’s a sadly observant character study of a man who looks but doesn’t see, hears but doesn’t listen. And when our worst fears become reality, sometimes the only thing we know how to do is retreat.
The Towering Inferno
LOL what the hell is this movie?!
Disaster movies today tend not to attract A-list celebrities, but in the good ol’ days, the biggest blockbusters needed the biggest names to bring in viewership. In this battle of the bluest eyes, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman join an incredible cast in the most epic B-movie of all time.
The classically tragic structure of The Towering Inferno is like a Titanic story in the sky: a rich bunch of debutantes attend a party to celebrate the debut of a new, towering skyscraper – named The Tallest Building in the World. However, when a fire breaks out on the 81st floor (more than 50 stories below the Prominade party), it’s a race to the finish to see who makes it out alive.
Built in the heart of San Francisco, The Glass Tower is the pride of Duncan Enterprises. It was designed by architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), constructed by builder James Duncan (William Holden) and houses more than 135 floors.
The Glass Tower also features a stunning scenic elevator on the outside of the building, as well as a number of mid-century modern offices that look straight out of a James Bond film.
All eyes are on the skyscraper on the evening of its dedication gala, which is taking place on the tower’s 135th floor. The mayor and his wife, along with a number of wealthy diplomats, are in attendance; however, Doug becomes aware of some corner-cutting changes to his design specs when a fire breaks out in a storage closet on the 81st floor.
Not wanting to worry people unnecessarily, and believing the fire to be containable, Duncan refuses to move or cancel the party, even when chief security officer Harry Jernigan (O.J. Simpson) warns him that the fire is quickly spreading.
Any disaster movie fan can see the omens in this film right from the beginning. For example, the building has a state-of-the-art central communications and security system, but half the equipment doesn’t work. As one of the staff in the building says, “I told you we shouldn’t have held the party until the safeguards were installed.” Famous last words.
As the fire spreads and the tower becomes a mass of flames, fire chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) comes to save the day. As his men battle the blazes, O’Halloran performs crazy stunts, including blowing up water tanks and jerry-rigging an elevator to a helicopter. And, for what it’s worth, the fire is pretty convincing. The explosions, wreckage, even the terror, all looks authentic. The Towering Inferno is frankly a masterpiece of stunt coordination and special effects – which is sadly overshadowed by the horrible writing.
Of course, if you’re like me, you take crude pleasure in terrible lines like, “Hey, are you here to take me on or the fire?” Or “How bad is it [the fire]?” “It’s a fire – all fires are bad.” But when these lines are placed in a movie that’s trying to take itself seriously, it badly detracts from the action. Furthermore, giving any of these characters a backstory seems simply unnecessary, yet The Towering Inferno dedicates precious moments in this near 3-hour film to useless interactions between bosses and secretaries, couples fighting over their children, and very unlikely sex scenes.
Still, I have to admit that I had a blast watching this, despite the fact that it was a bit of a slow burn (pun intended!). In addition to Newman, McQueen, Simpson and Holden, this all-star cast also features Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Fred Astaire, and so, so many others.
Theater audiences must have had a blast too, because The Towering Inferno was the highest-grossing film of 1974, beating the Best Picture winner, The Godfather II, by almost $20 million in gross box office sales. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Cinematography. Fred Astaire received a surprising Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in this film, the only Oscar nomination he would ever receive (though I have a feeling this nomination was less about his performance here and more a dedication to everything he had done up to this point).
In the world of great Oscar nominated films, The Towering Inferno probably rests among the ashes. But in the world of disaster movies, this film reigns supreme. Though the writing is rough and the pacing is slow, the cast and special effects are enough to carry this film from its slow-burn start to its raging conclusion, all while giving audiences – both men and women – plenty of eye candy along the way!
"The trouble is we all live in a 'happy ending' culture...a 'what should be' culture instead of a 'what is' culture. We're taught that fantasy, but if we were taught 'This is what it is', I think we'd be less screwed up."
Lenny Bruce was one of the first and most vigorously persecuted stand-up comics of the 1960s. Using the stage for social commentary and personal reflection, Lenny created the template for the likes of Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. and, perhaps most famously, George Carlin. His acts were filled with profanity and obscenity, which he was arrested for on numerous occasions. Yet what he was really saying was often less rude, crude and lewd – and much more intelligent – than what passes for comedy today.
In his first non-musical film, director Bob Fosse brings Lenny Bruce to life through the eyes of those who knew him the best: his wife, his mother and his agent. An anonymous interviewer asks them questions about Lenny following his untimely death, and their memories and anecdotes provide a framework for flashbacks in which we trace Lenny’s rise and fall. Shot in grainy, evocative black and white, this film feels more like a documentary than a Hollywood-produced biopic.
Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) got his start as almost all comics do – working at crappy dive bars. His material, which consists mainly of cheesy bird jokes and Jimmy Durante imitations, bombs almost every night. It’s the 1960s – the world doesn’t need another impersonator – it needs a profit.
He decides to hang up his fake Durante nose and instead provides commentary on stories in Time Magazine. Photos of naked women aren’t vulgar, he says, but those depicting the assassination of President Kennedy are. He says the n-word 15 times on stage as a way to prove that it would mean nothing if it just became part of the vernacular.
Like he did with Cabaret just two years earlier, Fosse uses smart editing to juxtapose Lenny’s nightclub scenes with the traumatic events going on in his life outside the club. These scenes sometimes provide inspiration for the stage acts, or morbidly reflect on them.
Though Lenny Bruce enjoyed a bit of a run during the 1960s, he died at the young age of 40 of a drug overdose. Without a penny to his name, he faded from the spotlight as subtly as the smoke that clouds this film. It seems the same happened to the movie itself. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hoffman), this film remains sadly forgotten.
Though he’s not nearly as famous today as the comics who would come to benefit from his style, Lenny Bruce was one-of-a-kind in his day. Was he ahead of his time? Probably not. Rather, I think he was JUST in time.
“Are you alone?” a client asks P.I. Jake Gittes. “Isn’t everyone?” he replies.
Loneliness, it seems, in central to a lot of noir heroes. Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, William Holden and Raymond Chandler brought to life characters who make a living plundering into other people’s secrets while running from their own. Add to that list Jack Nicholson, who’s Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown brought to life a man who makes a living out of occupying human tragedy.
Dressed in a grey 3-piece suit, Gittes is a snazzy, but lonely, private investigator who makes a living catching adulterers in the act. When a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray walks into his office, he doesn’t even bat an eye when she tells him she suspects her husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling) is having an affair. She hires him to obtain evidence of the infidelity, which he does, but he realizes he’s been had when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) knocks on his door.
Someone has used him, and now he’s determined to get to the bottom of it. His investigation sends him twisting and turning throughout 1930s Los Angeles, beginning with the discovery of Hollis’ dead body, then winding back to our femme fatale, Evelyn and her sinister father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was also Hollis' business partner.
The conspiracy Gittes comes to uncover doesn’t involve typical noir loot, like jewels and gems. Rather, this twisted scam involves diverting water away from the San Fernando valley, drying it up to buy the land cheaply, then re-diverting the water back to the valley so the property skyrockets. Hollis paid the ultimate price when he learned what was going on…and now that Gittes has come to the same conclusions, he not only has to find Hollis' killer, and avoid being swept up into Evelyn’s spider web, AND avoid becoming fish food at the hand of Cross – but must also watch out for anyone looking to off him as well.
Made before Nicholson added his trademark sneer to every one of his roles, Chinatown shows off the multiple facets of this man’s talents. Tenderness, humor, quiet intensity and bravery were pillars of Gittes’ character – and this role was not only Nicholson’s first leading part, but it would also change the direction of his career. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his first Oscar-winning role, was released the following year, with The Shining, The Postman Always Rings Twice and, one of my favorite Nicholson movies, Batman, still to follow.
What makes Chinatown so great is that it takes everything we know of the film noir genre and turns it on its head. Most noirs are in black and white – this one is in color. Evelyn Mulwray, who – on the outside – is the stereotypical femme fatale, is actually the film’s heroine…and has a few heartbreaking secrets of her own. Even Gittes, who starts the movie off as the Bogart-loner type, becomes more of a protector when he becomes aware of Evelyn’s traumatic past. By the end, the wrong people die and evil triumphs. It goes against everything we know and love about traditional P.I. films.
However, like several noir films, Chinatown is filled with symbolism – the most prominent symbol being water. From the literal representation of water being diverted and stolen to the garden pond that comes to hold the clue that ties everything together, water is everywhere. It’s the key to great power and wealth and the tool of insatiable greed and corruption. Hollis Mulwray himself was loosely based on LA’s real-life water engineer, William Mulholland, who orchestrated the purchase of water rights and the piping of water from the High Sierras into Los Angeles county. And, of course, the villain Noah Cross can easily be a representation of the Biblical Noah and the torrential flood that devastated life on earth.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, Chinatown would only win one: Best Original Screenplay. Yet it’s still considered one of the best films ever made, launching Jack Nicholson to stardom and becoming a notch on the old belt for actors like Faye Dunaway, whose career couldn’t be stopped in the 1970s.
Perhaps the biggest red herring in Chinatown is the title itself. According to Gittes, it’s a place to be avoided because nothing can be done about it. It’s a haven of corruption and negligence, a place where good intentions have horrible consequences. We don’t even get to Chinatown until the last 5 minutes of the film…But hey, forget it. It’s Chinatown.
The Godfather Part II
The world of cinema is filled with impossible questions: What was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? What the F happened in Inception? Why did it take so long for Leo to win his damn Oscar? Which is better, The Godfather or The Godfather Part II?
A companion piece in the truest sense of the term, The Godfather Part II garnered as much respect as its predecessor, if not more. With 11 Oscar nominations and 6 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Godfather Part II has rightfully been hailed the best sequel of all time. But is it a better movie than the first? More on that in a minute.
The Godfather Part II tells two parallel, albeit disconnected, stories. The shorter of the two storylines presents the early life of Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and how he came to power. The other picks up about 10 years after the conclusion of the first film and shows how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) attempts to expand the family business into Las Vegas and Cuba.
The more important story here is Michael’s. Surrounded by his family as they gather for his son’s first communion, Part II opens as the first film did – with a family assemblage – and the godfather in question “holding court.”
However, the Corleone’s have since left New York and are now in Las Vegas, with the hope of someday becoming “legitimate.” Michael is in the process of working with the powerful and influential Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a Jewish mobster and past business partner of Vito.
As Michael gets deeper and deeper into the world of crime, his paranoia grows. Soon he becomes the focal point of a web of betrayal and deceit, seemingly stemming from his own inner circle.
For a man battling to keep his family together – or so he says – Michael’s efforts only fragment it. By the end of the film, he’s succeeded in pushing everyone away, even his own wife and children.
Interweaving this storyline is that of Vito’s, beginning with his childhood in Sicily, showing his arrival at Ellis Island, and the very beginnings of his rise to fame as the new Don. Vito’s story at first may seem out of place here, but it’s clearly meant as a contrast. As we watch Vito rise, we also watch Michael fall.
That being said, I also felt that Vito’s storyline affected the narrative pace of Michael’s dealings in Las Vegas and Cuba. I would even argue Part II would be a better film without the Vito storyline, even though I found myself greatly enjoying it. I think the problem is that the story of Michael didn’t have quite the impact on me as I was hoping because I kept getting pulled away from it, constantly shifting gears between the horrors of Michael’s reign and the nostalgic feel of Vito’s storyline.
So, was Part II better than the first? Well, I don’t mean to break any hearts but, I’d argue no…still, it’s a phenomenal film. For me, Part II didn’t quite tell the same simple, absorbing story that its predecessor did. I found Part II a little too choppy, and it left me with too many unanswered questions. Though the rise of Vito worked in showcasing how much of a monster Michael turned out to be, I really don’t think the guy needed any help. Al Pacino’s blank stares told me everything I needed to know about his character – and even if I had any questions about it, the abortion scene and the Fredo scene would be enough to remind me.
The final moments of Part II remind us of what used to be. In a flashback scene where several of our favorite characters return for Don Vito’s birthday, we can see even here that Michael is intended as the tragic figure. As we know from the first film, this was not the life he chose, but he seems destined for it. Sitting at the family table, his siblings singing “Happy Birthday” in the next room, Michael is clearly lonely, sad, alone. Great traits for a mob boss. When his father selected him to take over, it wasn’t random – it was destiny. Say it with me now – it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Read the review for The Godfather: Part I
Read the review for The Godfather: Part III