Here's an example of one of our longer write-ups in the book. These start with "Now Showing" information, a seventy-character "Preview" (always exactly seventy characters), a "Fine Line" (a quote from the movie), and a "Close-Up" on a specific scene. Then come the essay's title and a 900-word discussion, followed by an "Added Attraction" that supplements the main movie with an extra list or further analysis.


NOW SHOWING: Earthquake (November 1974)

Director: Mark Robson

Stars: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Geneviève Bujold

Academy Awards: Two wins (Best Sound; Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects), plus three more nominations (Best Editing; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction)

PREVIEW: When a massive earthquake destroys L.A., the survivors face various emergencies.

FINE LINE: "Earthquakes bring out the worst in some guys." (Sgt. Slade, after killing a psychotic survivor.)

CLOSE-UP: Oscar voters who gave Earthquake its Special Effects award must not have remembered the elevator scene fifty-seven minutes into the movie. When a falling elevator finally hits bottom and causes violent deaths, the screen suddenly fills with big blobs of cartoon blood. Eager to skirt the R rating that might have resulted from a more realistic portrayal of the carnage, Universal instead opted for a cheesy animation that unfortunately inspires only surprised snickers.


By 1974, Hollywood had shown spectacular disasters in the air -- Airport (1970) -- and at sea -- The Poseidon Adventure (1972) -- so everyone was ready for a disaster on land. Two high-profile movies ran with this concept in different directions: The Towering Inferno (1974) burned down a skyscraper, while Earthquake (1974) destroyed a city. Earthquake wasn't as good as its fiery Best Picture-nominated rival, but it may have been more ambitious.

Whereas some previous disaster movies had presented implausible situations -- we're looking at you, Airport 1975 (1974) -- Earthquake was grounded in historical precedent, the devastating 1971 earthquake that wreaked death and destruction in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. Thus, with earthquakes a realistic threat, audiences were primed for Earthquake, a realistic movie. And it's the realism that makes Earthquake so memorable. Earthquakes had been shown before, of course, as in the Best Picture-nominee San Francisco (1936), but in 1974 the effects in Earthquake seemed like a completely new experience. The first tremor, magnitude 3.1, hits just five minutes into the movie and delivers some jiggling-camera effects. Then the Big One arrives forty-five minutes later and rumbles steadily for eight dramatic minutes (that's not impossible -- a 1960 earthquake in Chile lasted almost ten minutes). In Earthquake, buildings sway and topple, streets lift and split, and a dam cracks and bursts, destruction that's even more resonant because many of the buildings -- the Capitol Records tower, for instance -- are actual landmarks. After Los Angeles is ruined and millions of people die, the survivors are confronted with dangerous gas leaks, fires, downed power lines, flash floods, and more. Director Mark Robson shows these conditions with impressive wide-angle shots, not with cheating close-ups of shattering window and spurting fire hydrants.

Where the movie producers really got ambitious was with their patented Sensurround audio system. Developed for the movie and installed in major theaters, Sensurround's low-frequency speakers produced gut-churning bass effects. Legends quickly circulated that ceiling plaster in some theaters had fallen during the most intense moments, publicity that only strengthened the allure. Armed with Sensurround, Earthquake became an "event" movie and thundered its way to blockbuster status. The visual and sonic presentation of "the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States" (as it's described in the movie) won Earthquake multiple technical-achievement Oscars.

Viewers who disparage Earthquake usually bring the movie's characters into their argument. Blending earnest scientists, romantic lovers, and clownish lowlifes, Earthquake has an all-star cast but simply doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. The subplots range from the barely relatable to the overtly ridiculous, as if the producers wanted weirdness and comedy alongside catastrophe and heartbreak. Earthquake is an hour-long story padded to 123 minutes with campy subplots, dated attitudes (the phrase "sexy broads" comes up), and a couple of bizarre casting choices.

Following the disaster template established by Airport, Earthquake has more than one hero, and, as per the template, one of them is played by George Kennedy. As he was in Airport, here Kennedy is the everyman lug with a regular job (he's a cop) who acts first and thinks later, but viewers know his heart is in the right place. It's Kennedy's cop who is chasing stolen cars, punching guys who have smart mouths, shooting dangerous kidnappers, and literally rescuing a puppy. Balancing Kennedy is another stalwart of epic movies, Charlton Heston. He's the Shakespearean hero, high-ranking and strong, but haunted and pitiable. As a cutting-edge architect he knows that most of L.A.'s buildings won't survive a major earthquake, but his attempts early in the movie to rally support for better designs are defeated by economic realities. Trapped in a failing marriage with a spoiled, rich wife, the architect's affections wander to a lithe widow who is nineteen years his junior (Geneviève Bujold). At the end of the movie, the architect has to choose between them. His self-destructive choice confirms that though shalt not commit adultery.

Ava Gardner, as the architect's wife, is one of Earthquake's mistakes. Her father is played by Lorne Greene, who at fifty-seven years old is only seven years older than his "daughter." It's not the decade's strangest age disparity; that would probably be Barry Lyndon (1975), where twenty-eight-year-old Marisa Berenson is only a year older than the son played by Leon Vitali, but the Ava/Lorne pairing is still jarring. Victoria Principal is another supporting character, and she stays stunningly beautiful under an indestructible sky-high Afro. Unfortunately, her role calls for her to stand still and be ogled in a bar by men who brazenly stare at her cleavage, ostensibly for comic effect but actually an insult in a decade blooming with feminist causes. Richard Roundtree, the iconic, cool detective in Shaft (1971), plays a goofy role that seems beneath him; Marjoe Gortner, in the most disconnected, off-putting subplot of them all, is a disturbed National Guardsman in an embarrassing wig who shoots other survivors; and for no discernable reason Walter Matthau (billed under his real name, Walter Matuschanskayasky) has an unfunny, pointless role as a mumbling, wildly dressed drunk.

Despite its obvious faults, Earthquake was a smashing success at the box office. In addition, its primary technical contribution, Sensurround, made it into two other Universal movies, Midway (1976) and Rollercoaster (1977), before high costs and the proliferation of small multiplex theaters ended this brief audio experiment. It's not the Great One, but in many ways Earthquake was the Big One.


With Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Walter Matthau, Richard Roundtree, and more, Earthquake continues the Airport tradition of putting an all-star cast in peril. All-star casts were nothing new, of course. Long before Earthquake, producers had been assembling casts of familiar names as extra enticements for movie audiences. Two good examples are two Best Picture winners, Grand Hotel (1932) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), which were both populated with famous faces. Representing the early 1970s are the next five movies and some of their venerable stars.

Airport (1970): Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, George Kennedy, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Maureen Stapleton

Airport 1975 (1974): Dana Andrews, Linda Blair, Sid Caesar, Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Myrna Loy, Helen Reddy, Gloria Swanson

Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York

That’s Entertainment (1974): Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Peter Lawford, Liza Minnelli, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor

The Towering Inferno (1974): Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner


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