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 as 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, Fred Astaire and OJ Simpson! 'The Towering Inferno' is a supreme guilty pleasure.
The Towering Inferno (1974) dir. John Guillerman & Irwin Allen
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway
By Alan Bacchus
Irwin Allen made a career out of cinematic spectacles, 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's 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 it. 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 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 between the characters at the expense of common sense relationships. Allen and Guillerman manage to avoid these trappings admirably.
Take the Richard Chamberlain character. He's 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 that elevates this disaster pic above most others in the genre.
Steve McQueen’s immersive performance as the chief exemplifies 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, right up to the final shot even when we see him exit the building, nonchalantly hop into his car and drive away – like punching out of the clock.
In these final moments screenwriter Sterling Silliphant includes 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 than 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.