Monday, March 19, 2007

Towering Idols

Here's something you probably didn't know: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen helped me pass my French Oral (stop making your own jokes up at the back there!) 'A' level.

Just the week before my exam I'd spent a week or too with my French Exchange family in Le Havre. On that trip the family had decided to take me to the cinema to help break up the monotony, but struggled to find a good French film that was showing. They eventually conceded defeat and opted for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, which had just opened, and was at least dubbed in French without English subtitles to enable me to cheat. The film was The Towering Inferno, or rather La Tour Infernale (why are towers female? Because they're infernal?)

The film, the first big 'disaster movie' I'd ever seen, made a big impression on me, despite the fact I probably didn't understand half of the plot intricacies because of the language. I particularly remember the annoying wait during the intermission (yes, this was in the days when films had an intermission!) after a sudden explosion had seemingly sent Paul Newman's character plunging to his death.

When I returned to the UK I went to see the film again - this time in English to get a feel for some of the dialogue that I'd had problems understanding. In many ways the film started my huge obsession with cinema. I went on to read the two novels on which the film was based - The Tower and The Glass Inferno - to buy the large film poster and lobby cards, and to buy the soundtrack score by John Williams, which to this day is one of my favourite film scores. It was also around this time that my Sunday afternoon trips to a cinema in the centre of Southampton became a regular occurrence.

Getting back to that wretched French exam, it was when my French examiner asked me if I'd seen any films over the Summer that I was able to pontificate at length about 'les pompiers' in the film, going on to discuss the overlapping roles of the police and the fire brigade when disasters happened, and somehow dragging a discussion sparked by the film into a conversation that lasted for most of the examination length.

Something about the conversation must have been OK because although I failed French A Level overall, the 'Oral' section was separately categorised as 'a C pass', with a 'compensatory O level' being awarded overall. In fact the O level was no compensation at all since I already had one (how on earth could you do a French A level without first having the O level?), but who am I to argue with the 'generosity' of the examination boards of the 1970's?!

The big story around The Towering Inferno at the time was the big 'battle of egos' between the two 'rival' stars, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Much like the artificial Brit Band wars of the 90's (when you apparently had to be an Oasis fan or a Blur one but could never be both!) you were supposed to support one actor over the other. My vote went to Newman, partly because he was prettier, but also because he had a reputation for being 'nice' where McQueen had a reputation for being arrogant, thin-skinned and rather 'difficult'. Rumour had it that McQueen only signed up to the film when Newman agreed to have his lines cut so that the two actors had exactly the same number of words. The poster billing became a big issue, with a compromise about equal billing only being achieved by having McQueen's name appear first, but with Newman's slightly higher, so that which actor's name was first depended on whether you scanned the poster from left to right or top-down!

Towering Inferno mini-poster from my hallway

You're probably thinking this is leading into a link to my review of the afore-mentioned film on DVD. Alas not! The British DVD of the film is an old one, and a very poor transfer. In the States a new digitally polished 'Special Edition' was released last year, but has yet to be officially released here. As a big childhood fan, I had to order a copy from the States of course, but my Region 1 DVD player (a top-end Toshiba, which has now been sat in Toshiba's workshops for FIVE MONTHS 'awaiting parts'. Grrr!) packed up the week before it arrived. Hopefully the title will get a Region 2 release at some point.

So no 'Towering Inferno' review, this time round. What sparked off the old memories, and this blog entry, was the release (today!) of the Cinema Reserve edition of Paul Newman's oscar-nominated The Verdict. This comes hot on the heels of the HD-DVD releases a fortnight ago of two Steve McQueen classics: Bullitt and The Getaway, so in a few days time there's going to be a spate of reviews on my blogs around the films which starred these icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I still think Newman beats McQueen hands down, at least based on these three reissues, with The Getaway in particular not dating very well, and being seriously undermined by the appallingly wooden performance of McQueen's squeeze at the time, Ali McGraw. Stay tuned for the first review - I've got Sunshine at the NFT tonight (with a Q&A screening with the director, Danny Boyle) to get out of the way first. And on Wednesday on top of being away at a Microsoft launch event all day I'm apparently going to be seeing Harry Potter waving his bits about on stage, so it's a busy week!

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