Tower! Just the word connotes so much. Height, scale, anticipation. When you see a tower in a movie then you know something, usually literally, is going down. Whether it’s Steve McQueen over heating inside one, or Harold Lloyd clinging to a clock face, you know when a tower appears, excitement is never far away.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), DIE HARD (1988), TANGLED (2010), POLICE ACADEMY (1984). None of these films would work without a high tower. And the latest to utilise the looming urban leviathan is TOWER HEIST, a new comedy with an all-star cast led by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. Directed by Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR), it concerns the employees of a high rise in New York who, upon discovering they have lost their pensions, decide to steal $20,000,000 from the corrupt businessman who defrauded them. With the help of a small time thief, they plot to rob his penthouse at the top of the… oh my yes… tower.
The movie marks Ratner’s return to comedy, his last being RUSH HOUR 3 in 2007. Joining mirth-making maestros Stiller and Murphy are Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck and, in her first comedy role, Gabourey Sidibe (PRECIOUS). But this bunch of misfits are by no means the first to try and pull a heist in a tower…
In 1988, Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) scaled Nakatomi Tower in order to reconcile with his estranged wife. Little did he know that it was going to be a very bad day. For not long after being spurned by the very person he came to see, a team of sharp-suited European terrorists (back when terrorists were more fun) headed by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in, amazingly, his feature film debut) rock up and take everyone in the building hostage. Everyone except for McClane. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse, as McClane must single-handedly evade and pick off the terrorists one by one, whilst exchanging badass one-liners with his German nemesis and doing nothing to help American or European relations.
DIE HARD is by no means the first movie to feature the group-of-people-picked-off-by-one-person-in-relatively-enclosed-space concept. We had ALIEN (1979) where, trapped on a spaceship, the entire crew was picked off by, um, an alien. And PREDATOR (1987) where, trapped in the jungle, the entire crew was picked off by, um, an alien. The advantage of using a skyscraper in a city was the interaction with the outside world. The radio link between McClane and Gruber inside, with Al and the bumbling authorities outside created many opportunities for memorable dialogue, surprisingly touching moments and some great tension. Also, the action sequences within the tower were wholly unique, using the stairs, elevator shafts, the rooftop and the windows in some creative, daring and truly spectacular set pieces. When many action movies followed, DIE HARD was the movie they were compared to:
UNDER SIEGE (1992) Die Hard on a boat.
SPEED (1994) Die Hard on a bus.
PASSENGER 57 (1992) Die Hard on a plane.
SUDDEN DEATH (1995) Die Hard in a hockey stadium.
CON AIR (1997) Die Hard on… another plane.
TOY SOLDIERS (1991) Die Hard in a school (oh come on now).
AIR FORCE ONE (1997) Die Hard on a yet another bloody plane.
DIE HARD, believe it or not, was based on a novel by Roderick Thorp called NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. That very book was inspired by another film. Namely…
THE TOWERING INFERNO, probably the ultimate movie featuring a really tall building. This film itself was an amalgamation of two novels, THE GLASS INFERNO by Frank M. Robinson/Thomas N. Scortia and THE TOWER by Richard Martin Stern. The tagline says it all – ‘The tallest building in the world is on fire. You are there with 294 other guests. There’s no way down. There’s no way out.’ Grim stuff. The film lives up the the horrid premise and the body count is very high indeed with people either being burned alive or plummeting to their deaths. It’s not really the family viewing one might expect for what has become a teatime adventure film. However, the key selling point of the movie, other than the duel top billing of megastars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, was the promise of unmatched suspense and excitement and it certainly delivers. Once again, the use of a tower for delivering thrills and, time and time again, kills.
Much like Hans Gruber, many characters descend to their demise in THE TOWERING INFERNO. The prospect of a fall is a perpetual theme in tower movies, encapsulated best by the image of Buster Keaton clinging to a clock face in SAFETY LAST (1923) and it has stayed prominent throughout Hollywood history.
Films that include key characters falling off a tower at the climax include:
THE TOWERING INFERNO
SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (Extended 2004)
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
BATMAN (1989) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
(The Joker both times. Two Face falls to his death in BATMAN FOREVER, though it’s technically not a tower)
And thats not including all the films where our protagonists leap from the tops of buildings in true heroic fashion.
Disney’s ROBIN HOOD (1973) escapes the dastardly Prince John by leaping out of another towering inferno. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) parachutes out of a skyscraper in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) and III (2006). SPIDERMAN (2002) is probably the only character to leap from a building then swing back up to another one and, of course, The Dark Knight himself. In BATMAN FOREVER (1995), he shows what good aim he has by plunging off the edge of a building and into a manhole. Show off.
Then there is the notion of being trapped inside. The characters in DIE HARD and THE TOWERING INFERNO were prisoners in a tower, much like Rapunzel in Disney’s TANGLED. She was forbidden to leave the tower by her evil step-mother who used Rapunzel’s magical hair as a way of staying youthful (hey, we’ve all done it). Dorothy in the WIZARD OF OZ (1939) was held captive in a tower, as was Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991). And SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). The idea of a helpless girl being locked away from the world in this massive phallic symbol is woven into the tapestry of popular culture because of these tales. It was lampooned brilliantly by SHREK (2001), in which Princess Fiona feels compelled to act like a helpless princess because of this very history. But the fact remains, when you need to hold someone prisoner, where better than a tower? Even the great escape artist Sirius Black was trapped inside one at the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004). He escaped by riding a Hippogriff, which is something that never occurred to Steve McQueen in THE TOWERING INFERNO. That idiot.
In all seriousness, a tower in movie is a great tool for a film maker. It creates various dualities. Such large scale contrasting with claustrophobia. Confinement juxtaposed with the vast amount of space all around, allowing for countless scenes where characters have reached the roof, only to find no way down. There is so much that can be gained by simply setting your movie in a tall building.
TOWER HEIST is quite unlike most of the films mentioned throughout, in that it is a straight up comedy. It’s unlikely that we will see Matthew Broderick bound into the wilderness, he just doesn’t seem the sort. What we will likely see are near falls, gags and excitement aplenty. Its called TOWER HEIST! How could it not be exciting?
TOWER HEIST hits theatres in the UK on November 2nd.