My household has been on something of a disaster-movie kick lately — hence reviews for Concorde: Airport ’79 and Earthquake, which you can check out — and it was high time that we got to the mother of all disaster movies, the one that hit the top of the scale in terms of budget and box office, The Towering Inferno. Though Hollywood has tried to equal The Towering Inferno‘s stature, including with a remake of Irwin Allen’s own The Poseidon Adventure, they have never succeeded and, I suspect, never will. This is the good stuff.
I guess we’ll never know what seized Hollywood for a span of years in the 1970s, what impulse drove them to create so many disaster pictures. Money, of course, has something to do with it. Arguably the first disaster movie was Airport, which made a tidy sum at the box office. The Poseidon Adventure, which followed a couple of years later, made even more cash. Success breeds imitation. And these movies do share common elements to hold them together cohesively as a thriller subgenre.
One of these things is an all-star cast. Not huge stars across the board, but plenty of recognizable faces. The Towering Inferno has Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner and still more. If a character has a name, that character is likely to be played by someone you know. Not only does this raise the chance that someone will buy a movie ticket based on the chance to see one of their favorite stars, but it also makes it difficult to know who’s going to die and who’s not. Usually it’s the non-star who bites it at the movies, but that formula is subverted here.
The premise, despite the proliferation of characters and subplots, is extremely straightforward: the world’s tallest building (138 stories!) has been built in San Francisco and on the night of its grand opening, when everybody who’s everybody will be there for a gala event, an electrical short on a high floor sparks a blaze that, in the end, will engulf the entire building. And you know this is coming because the movie is called The Towering Inferno. Something is gonna catch on fire.
Paul Newman plays the architect of this great structure, one that’s designed to be as safe as it can be made. William Holden is his boss whose cost-cutting, unbeknownst to Newman, has put everyone in danger; the electrical system is below par and is great for starting fires. Add to that the emergency systems, like the sprinklers, don’t work right. The stage is set for a perfect confluence of events to create a hell of a blaze.
Once the fire gets started, and it doesn’t take terribly wrong for that to happen, the film moves into crisis mode. The fire department, Steve McQueen serving as Fire Chief, is on the scene quickly, but it becomes apparent just as quickly that this particular fire is going to be difficult to fight thanks to the elevation and its intensity. McQueen complains bitterly that it’s next to impossible to contain a fire in a building over seven floors. The initial fire is on the 81st floor.
There are a lot of personal dramas happening in The Towering Inferno and I don’t have the space to go into all of them here. Everybody’s got at least one, related to the fire or not. Newman finds himself trapped by the conflagration with a couple of kids and an older woman (Jennifer Jones) in tow, while still embroiled in an anger contest with builder William Holden and a romance with Faye Dunaway, both of whom are stranded on the top floor at the party. Things get out of hand in the building pretty fast once the fire spreads past 81, with exploding gas lines and the works, so there’s plenty of peril to go around.
As with Earthquake, which came out one month before, The Towering Inferno‘s most interesting element (at least for me) is how the crisis is handled. Sure, there’s drama to be had from wondering if Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones are going to see each other again, or if Paul Newman will be reunited with his girlfriend, but the film is at its most engaging when it shows how people, professionally or otherwise, cope with the unfolding disaster. Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay, which adapts and combines two different novels into a cohesive whole, doesn’t spare us the nitty-gritty of firefighting, and while there are plenty of moments when the firefighters are engaged in derring-do, especially McQueen, the bulk of their scenes are almost businesslike as they strategize about how to organize their men and most effectively fight the fire. I don’t consider these scenes throwaway or a distraction at all, but rather the heart of things.
I said that part of the strategy behind having so many stars is that you don’t know who’s going to die, and that’s proven out by the movie. Good people die, bad people die… it hardly seems to make a difference. It’s a disaster, after all, and fires aren’t choosy about who they kill. I’ll admit I was surprised more than once by the characters who didn’t make it, and the tension in these sequences is real.
On another note: as a joint production between Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros, thanks to The Towering Inferno‘s then-staggering $14 million budget (roughly twice what Earthquake cost), the movie looks extremely good. The cast couldn’t have been cheap to get and certainly they’re the soul of the picture, but it would all be in vain if the effects were no good. The Towering Inferno can look, at times, quite real, and though there are some fairly obvious blue-screen moments, they aren’t as common as you might expect. Exterior shots of the tower itself are especially solid, even when the fire effects start, and would stand up to audience scrutiny if used today.
If you’re looking for the quintessential disaster-movie experience, it doesn’t get any better than The Towering Inferno. It’s nearly three hours long and that time passes like a shot. I’d watch it again tomorrow if I had an open block of time. Overlook — or revel, as I do — the ’70s styles and the presence of actors like OJ Simpson and remember you’re seeing a genuine filmic touchstone that was very much of its time. You’ll have a blast. I know I did.