The Towering Inferno – one of the most popular, most star-packed disaster movies of all time!
A state-of-the-art San Francisco high-rise is having a big grand opening. Guests plan to celebrate the dedication of this towering architectural achievement high atop the skyscraper by drinking champagne and looking absolutely groovy in their 1970’s duds. However, on the floors below trouble erupts when a fire breaks out. The fire quickly gets out of control and begins burning through floors threatening everyone above.
It’s up to the buildings architect, a fire chief and a roster of stars to scramble to snuff out the flames, rescue each other and try to save themselves from being burnt to a crisp while audiences bite their fingernails and help make The Towering Inferno the highest grossing film of 1974.
The 1970s disaster craze reached it’s apex with The Towering Inferno. It had a huge star-studded cast, state of the art special effects, spectacular stunts and became the biggest hit of the year. It would even win some technical Oscars, including somehow managing a nomination for Best Picture. That’s strange to think about it to me.
Two film studios, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, came together to make the massive film. It was Irwin Allen’s crowning achievement in the genre he was best known for. It was a disaster movie on an epic scale in all aspects.
Let’s get the cast out of the way. Leading the way is Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who both famously demanded top billing in the movie. This resulted in their names being staggered in the credits and on the movie poster. This is one bit of trivia about the movie everyone seems to like mentioning.
The two competitive stars even had it in their contracts they would each have the same number of lines in the film, making sure the other wouldn’t eclipse the other in that department either! This is what I often read. I don’t know how true it is though, since I never went through the film and counted the amount of words each utters. But this strange concession was worth getting two of cinemas coolest actors on the same screen together.
In my opinion, McQueen comes out on top in the movie as the tough fire chief who has plenty to deal with. He has a much showier role, looks much cooler, gets more memorable close-ups and gets to do more action-packed things. He didn’t need to worry about counting the lines of dialogue he got.
The rest of the cast is a head-turning barrage of ‘Stars’ that would make 1974 audiences necks sore. William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner.
There was no shortage of ‘names’ to put on the movie poster!
So, architect Newman has designed this Glass Tower for builder Holden. However, Holden’s son-in-law Chamberlain decided to cut corners and used cheap wiring in its construction. This puts the building at a very high risk and threatens to make it a potential giant vertical tinderbox.
Yet, the grand opening party gala must go on despite any worries about the dangers of a blaze. Everyone has to head high up for the ritzy party to celebrate the dedication of the tallest building in the world! We’ll put off fixing that wiring problem tomorrow.
Big mistake! As Allen promised audiences and the title indicates, a fire breaks out on the lower floors and very quickly spreads creating dangerous havoc in the building.
The San Francisco fire department is called in to somehow try to battle this uncontrollable fire and rescue as many people as they can. McQueen leads the charge as the fire chief, ordering his men from one floor to another and trying to plan out how to get those folks out of the penthouse safely. Newman navigates through his smoldering building getting into near misses heroically saving who he can. High atop, the guests attempt escape by way of stairwells, elevators and helicopters.
That’s it. That’s the story. For the rest of it’s long runtime we watch our who-who’s of stars battle and run from the blaze in the 138 story building.
For younger movie audiences, I suppose it might be difficult to realize just how much of an event The Towering Inferno was at the time. This was something dramatically new to see on movie screens. Not only was it a big special effect spectacle, but it had more star power in it than an Oscar telecast.
Today, it has lost some of its impact. At times it plays as a long-winded, overly dramatic disaster yarn with some stilted silliness between the flames. With such a grand stage I guess they felt compelled to put in some grand drama as well. That seems to be the norm for most disaster films. I think Airport established this template and disaster films just followed it.
Some of the storylines play like a lightweight Love Boat episode. That was the design of most of the disaster movies at the time. Although, even when it’s pure cheese the charisma and star power manage to make it play a tad bit better than it should.
The one storyline that always gets me is Astaire as a conman who tries to find romance. It’s rather silly stuff. Astaire is fine, even receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance – the only nomination he got in his entire career!
This was something else that Airport established. That film managed to give elder star Helen Hayes a showy small role which resulted in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The Academy did this again with The Towering Inferno, using the opportunity of the films high profile by rewarding Astaire in his part in this disaster yarn. I suspect the Oscar was more for his past body of work and the Academy realized this was probably their last chance to honor the guy.
O.J. Simpson (which I guess no one can watch any of his earlier work without thinking what would later become of him) saving a cat is also an unintentionally funny moment in this disaster drama.
The film juggles between thrilling fire sequences, Newman, McQueen and the supporting actors that are scattered about the building as things continue to heat up. Newman gets into some exciting bits trying to climb collapsed stairwells and entering burning rooms, while McQueen deals with the blaze and makes exciting failed attempts trying to get the partygoers out of the penthouse. It all culminates into a hail mary pass to extinguish this fire for good.
The special effects and stunts (which should have received just as prominent billing as McQueen and Newman) hold up pretty well. Granted there are model and matte shots that look shaky today, but for its time this was all impressive stuff. It continues to provide authentic looking enough danger and holds up reasonably well.
Other than a lot of the silly ‘romantic stuff’, there are some genuine thrilling and tense moments that director John Guillermin creates. McQueen trying to save an elevator full of people, Newman attempting to rescue Jones and some kids over a collapsed stairwell. Wagner’s futile attempt to save himself and Flannery trapped in a flame engulfed suite. A rescue attempt from a helicopter with explosive results. It’s pretty good stuff.
Allen pulled out all the stops for this and no expense was spared for the film. They even managed to get a score by John Williams to help things along.
Thanks to the massive success of The Towering Inferno it gave a feather in the cap to many of the actors. It might not have given them the juiciest roles to sink their teeth into, but it gave them great exposure and they could say they were part of one of the biggest movies of the decade.
McQueen made such a killing on this that he practically retired from acting and could afford to be extremely selective of the projects he took. He would only do three more films before his early death in 1980 at the age of fifty.
The disaster genre would continue on until it’s gradual death by the end of the decade. Newman would reteam with Allen in the 1980 film When Time Ran Out. It ended up being a colossal flop. There’s a bit of irony – Newman starred in one of the biggest disaster films of the 1970s and later appeared in a disaster film that essentially signaled the end of the disaster film genre craze for the decade.
Many disaster films tried to emulate the profits and spectacle that The Towering Inferno did, but none would have such a big star lineup or be as successful. It’s never been my favorite in the disaster genre. As I said, The Poseidon Adventure I still place on top.
Even for just burning building movies go, I think the 2012 Korean film The Tower (which plays almost as a foreign shiny remake of The Towering Inferno) I thought was much more exciting and well done. That film would probably be more enjoyed by younger audiences than its 1974 forbearer.
It certainly has the star wattage and there are some exciting sequences that hold up, but I think I enjoy The Towering Inferno more as a time capsule of what a spectacular cinema experience once was in that long ago era of the early 1970s.
A look at the making of The Towering Inferno