Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Towering Looker from San Sebastian

I'm often surprised by what's available among the free on-demand movies offered by my cable service. Recently, I had an opportunity to revisit three films, one each from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: Guns for San Sebastian, The Towering Inferno, and Looker.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) is often described as a Spaghetti Western, though it was made in Mexico and none of the four stars are Italian. But, hey, Ennio Morricone composed the score, so it sounds like a Spaghetti Western. Anthony Quinn stars as an outlaw who seeks sanctuary in a church to avoid capture. When the priest (Sam Jaffe) who protects him is exiled to a remote desert village, Quinn accompanies him. Shortly after their arrival, the priest is killed and the villagers--and bad guy Charles Bronson--mistakenly assume that Quinn is the new priest. I thought this was a spiffy premise with lots of potential, but, alas, Guns for San Sebastian squanders its opportunities and settles for being a routine action film. Quinn seems to be willing to do more with his role, especially during the film's first half. Bronson, whom I've always liked, and Jaffe are respectable, though their characters are pretty one-dimensional. As Quinn's quasi-love interest, Anjanette Comer is dreadful and appears to own an impressive stash of cosmetics for a peasant girl. Our on-demand grade: C.

Newman and McQueen discuss how
to extinguish the big blaze.
The Towering Inferno (1974) has an interesting backstory: After Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure cleaned up at the box office, Warner Bros. bought the rights to The Tower, a novel about a burning skyscraper. Around the same time, 20th Century-Fox obtained the rights to The Glass Inferno, which featured a similar plot. Concerned that their competing movies would cancel each other out with moviegoers, the two studios opted to co-produce The Towering Inferno and put the film in Allen's hands. It features an all-star cast of screen vets (William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire), then-current stars (Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen), and even one of the The Brady Bunch kids (Mike Lookinland). It's as if The Towering Inferno wants to offer something for viewers of every age. What it lacks is a strong narrative, which is odd considering that Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure, In the Heat of the Night) penned the script. Poseidon worked well because it focused on one group's quest to survive and featured a dynamic performance from Gene Hackman as its leader. In contrast, Inferno comes across as a series of vignettes and we never spend long enough with any of the characters to really care about their fates. There are some suspenseful sequences, especially when Newman and Holden are trying to evacuate party guests from a top floor. But, in the end, the film doesn't gel and we're left with lots of 1970s orange-colored decor and Maureen McGovern singing "We May Never Love This Way Again" (a limp variation of "The Morning After"). Believe or not, Fred Astaire--who looks mostly bored--earned his only Oscar nomination for The Towering Inferno. Our on-demand grade: B- (I like orange...and Fred)

Susan Dey and Albert Finney.
About once every ten years, I feel compelled to watch Michael Crichton's Looker (1981). When it's over, I always wonder:  Why did I waste my time watching it again? I think the problem is that I remember the premise (intriguing) and forget the execution (which is ludicrous). Albert Finney plays a plastic surgeon whose latest clients are beautiful women seeking minor facial changes so they'll look "perfect." When a couple of these women end up dead, Finney begins an investigation (while he comes under suspicion by the police). Finney's sleuthing leads to a mysterious company called Digital Matrix, a sneaky politician played by James Coburn, and something called Light Occular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (hey, it spells "looker"!). He also meets a model played by Susan Dey in the horrible period in her career between The Partridge Family and L.A. Law. She and Finney have negative chemistry! Plus, they appear to be in different kinds of movies: he's doing a serious suspense film and she's acting in a playful mystery. Ultimately, intriguing ideas are spewed all over the place and I'm never quite sure what the heck the movie is about. Sadly, though, I'll probably watch it again in about ten years. Our on-demand grade: D.


  1. Rick, I love these kind of posts. I couldn't agree more with your assessments. It's been a long time since I saw San Sebastian, but I remember being very disappointed. I just wasted a couple of hours of my life watching The Towering Inferno a couple of weeks ago -- why, I don't know. I guess I was in a vegetative state. I remember my Dad made us laugh about the fact that every 5 minutes, it seemed, a body would fall out screaming. Doesn't sound funny,but it was, considering how bad the movie was. I do remember William Holden saying that he could have phoned his part in! LOL! Looker is also one I have watched a few times like a deer in the headlights. Albert Finney must have owed money to someone to do this stinker. Susan Dey just needed the work.

    I guess there is a good reason these movies are free! I love your comment about the color orange being so big in the early 70's. I watched an old Andy Williams Christmas special last year, and there it was -- orange everywhere! Really fun post, Rick!

  2. Becky, your Dad was right! Once the fire gets out of control, an awful lot of people fall to their deaths (even--gasp!--Jennifer Jones). But what a cast. In addition to those mentioned, there was Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and O.J. Simpson.

  3. Rick, I haven't seen the first and third film. I've seen THE TOWERING INFERNO, but it's been a long time, and I remember very little from it. Your post, in the grade format, was quite entertaining! Great job!

  4. Has anybody seen Finney in a quirky movie called "Gumshoe." It's a hoot.