The Towering Inferno (1974) dir. John Guillerman & Irwin Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway
I LOVE the “Towering Inferno” - the best disaster movie ever made. Admittedly I hadn’t seen it since childhood and it holds up beyond my memories of a child enraptured by the fire engines. A fire engulfing the tallest building in the world? Top notch, near-invisible special effects; Paul Newman and Steve McQueen occupying the same space? Plus William Holden and Fred Astaire and OJ Simpson! "The Towering Inferno" is a supreme guilty pleasure.
Irwin Allen made a career out of cinematic spectacle, an entertainer at heart who, despite his kitschy subject matter knew the movie business inside and out.
Made in 1974 perhaps in response to the skyscraper battle between the World Trade Centre (1970) and the Sears Tower (1973), Allen’s story is set at the opening of the world tallest building in San Francisco. Paul Newman plays the building's architect, Doug Roberts, who arrives to attend the lavish party arranged by the builder, Jim Duncan (William Holden). It doesn’t take long before the building engineers discover a fault in the electrical capacity of the wiring. All it takes is a spark from a cut-rate wire barely above safety code to start a fire.
Upon discovering the shoddy craftsmanship Roberts pleads to Duncan to delay the party, but with the dignitaries already getting smashed on the 135th floor Duncan chooses to save face. The small fire soon turns into a big one, thus trapping the party-goers above the fire. Chief O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) commands the fire fighters with an intense workmanlike manner using his creativity and experience to get everyone to safety.
As typical with the disaster-genre, the antagonist is the environment, which strikes usually in response to man’s efforts to tame mother nature. In this case, the fire which rages and grows uncontrollably. And often the moments of jeopardy can seem like overtly manufactured contrivances resulting in a fragmented collection of conspicuous set-pieces. Conflict inevitably arises from between the characters, at a sacrifice to common sense relationships. Allen and Guillerman manage to avoid these trappings admirably.
Take the Richard Chamberlain character the corner-cutting engineer, and son-in-law to Duncan, the builder. While he’s written to be a clear antagonist, his backstory as the working-class social climber looking for appreciation from his upper-class father in law anchors him in the real world. It's this concerted effort toward realism which elevates this disaster pic above most others in the genre.
Steve McQueen’s immersive performance as the chief exemplifies the Irwin Allen’s throughline of integrity. When McQueen arrives on the scene, he systematically goes through the procedural details of the job, retaining an unbiased professionalism and never losing his cool. A working man, just doing his job McQueen stays consistent to the very end up - to the final shot even, when we see him exit the building, non-chalantly hop into his car and drive away – like punching out of the clock.
In these final moments screenwriter Sterling Silliphant writes in a blatantly expository moral message about the dangers of architects and builders erecting skyscrapers higher and higher above their reach – “You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. You know, one of these days, you're gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies…” – a statement which could have caused audience groans in 1974 but resonates prophetically in a post 9/11 world.
We shouldn't over-analyze "The Towering Inferno" for profundities though, instead watch and appreciate it as a great epic adventure picture and blockbuster cinematic spectacle.
"The Towering Inferno" is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment