The Towering Inferno (1974)
Directed by: John Guillermin & Irwin Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson
So here it is, the film that is arguably the major classic of the disaster movie genre. Certainly, The Towering Inferno is the finest example of the 70’s style of disaster cinema: big all-star cast, multiple storylines, a spectacular central event, and an all-around massive production (Inferno was at the time the biggest film produced on the 20th Century Fox lot by virtue of its 57 sets and four camera crews.)
Producer Irwin Allen (who also made The Poseidon Adventure and would keep making disaster epics with less well-regarded films like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) shared directorial duties with John Guillermin (who, sadly, went on to direct the execrable 1976 version of King Kong). Sterling Silliphant (Academy Award winner for his screenplay to In the Heat of the Night) wrote the script as an adaptation of not one but two novels: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N Scortia and Frank M Robinson. The film was eventually nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three.
The movie opens as architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) returns from his vacation just in time for the dedication party for his brand new creation, the Glass Tower in San Franscisco – the world’s highest building with its 138 floors. He barely has time to check in at his office to make love with girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway) before bad things start happening: a short circuit in the engineering room brings to light faulty electrical wiring. This, it turns out, is caused by the electrical engineer – Roger Simmons, portrayed by Richard Chamberlain – changing Doug’s original specifications in order to cut costs and meet budget constraints. Roger is married to Patty Duncan (Susan Blakely), daughter of Jim Duncan (William Holden), owner of Duncan Enterprises and the man who financed the building, and thus both Roger and his father-in-law are to be held responsible for the disaster.
As the dedication party gets started in the 135th floor restaurant, the crappy wiring causes a fire to break out in a janitor’s closet on the 81st floor. This is discovered by the building’s security chief, played by one Mr. O.J. Simpson. Along with architect Doug he sets about getting people out and fighting the fire. Despite their efforts, the fire is already spreading quickly as the firefighters arrive at the scene. They are led by the no-nonsense fire chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen). O’Halloran finally convinces the reluctant Jim Duncan to start evacuating people from the party…but by then it’s already too late.
For the next two hours we’re treated to non-stop heroics from Newman, McQueen and the firefighters: apart from the dignitaries and celebrities at the party there are deaf women, small children and cute cats to rescue. Many people don’t make it: there is for instance the tragic case of a Duncan employee (Robert Wagner) and his secretary/lover who get trapped in his office. Both catch on fire and perish horribly, with Wagner falling off an indoor balcony while the girl crashes through the windows and plummets some 80 floors to her death. Among the spectacular deaths, it is particularly satisfying when we later see the despicable Roger Simmons gets his just deserts.
Options run out as the fire closes in on the partygoers (those who have survived this far), and fire chief O’Halloran goes on what might well be a suicide mission: he will be dropped on the flaming roof by helicopter in order to blow up the huge water tanks on top of the building, hoping the resulting flood will drown the fires (but hopefully not all the trapped people). This climactic sequence is a worthy conclusion to the movie.
As I re-watched the movie for blogging purposes, I was struck by how powerful it still is. I know I gave the cheese-fest Earthquake a 5/5 rating, but this is a different kind of good. This is, like, good for real. Inferno doesn’t suffer from the pacing problems that makes the first half of Earthquake seem a bit long, the characters are more believable, the plotting is way more efficient and the acting is on another level. The Towering Inferno even delivers some surprisingly earnest character moments. Combine all that with good effects work and some suspenseful set pieces, like Newman saving a woman and two children in a demolished stairwell or McQueen landing on an external elevator stuck some 100 floors up, and you have one fine film indeed.
Newman is good, Chamberlain is vile, Faye Dunaway is pretty and Fred Astaire (!) as an aging con-man who has lost the appetite for his trade is kind of touching. But the main man of the piece is the tireless and self-sacrificing fire-chief, played with quiet authority by Steve McQueen.
McQueen also delivers the film’s best line, as O’Halloran and some of his firefighters are forced to rope down an elevator shaft. One of the men balks at the prospect, saying he can’t do it, “I know I’ll fall”. McQueen looks at him seriously:
“Then you better go first. That way when you fall, you won’t take any of us with you.”
It is a testament to the quality of this movie that this isn’t played for laughs. Which might not stop you from laughing, though.