Saturday, 6 November 2021

The Towering Inferno (1974)


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The last movie of 1974 is “The Towering Inferno”, an added movie from the 10th edition revision of the Book.

This is one of the most iconic of the seventies disaster movies, the one most people would have seen. It was frequently enough on television in my childhood but was, rightly so, deemed unsuitable for children to watch.

On the opening night of the tallest skyscraper in the world a fire breaks out due to faulty electrical wiring and hundred of people are trapped in the building, including 300 guests at the opening party on the top floor. In classic disaster movie style, we follow a variety of characters through a night that is growing increasingly desperate as the fire spreads.

Paul Newman is the chief architect of the tower, Doug Robert, who, too late, discovers that his specs has not been followed in a bid to reduce costs. Rather than attend the party, he goes on a hunt to survey the scale of the problem. Too late as it turns out, the bad wiring has already started a fire on the 81’st floor. The fire brigade, headed by Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) are called in but as bad wiring is just one of many unsafe shortcuts, the fire spreads fast and is soon out of control.

A stellar ensemble cast includes William Holden as James Duncan, builder of the tower, Faye Dunaway as his daughter, Susan. Richard Chamberlain as her scumbag husband Roger, Robert Vaughn as a senator, O.J. Simpson as Harry Jernigan, security and not least Fred Astaire as an elderly con-man, just to mention a few.

This is a big movie in every sense of the word. Irwin Allen really went out of his way to create a spectacle. A skyscraper on fire is no simple affair and though some of the cinematography looks a bit dated, there is no doubt this is a landmark movie on pyrotechnics, special effects and stunts. The scale of the thing makes Allen’s previous movie, “The Poseidon Adventure” small and primitive by comparison. Usually on large scale disaster movies the acting drama takes the back seat and suffers as a result, but for a change this is not too shabby. Not surprising, really, when you have both Newman and McQueen in the movie. That cannot go wrong.

I was worried going in how this movie would work post-9/11. We have all seen the pictures of the twin towers on fire and people trapped on the top floors desperately trying to escape, recently even, as media was full of it less than 2 months ago at the marking of 20 years since the event. There are a lot of parallels and I kept making comparisons. The problem is that no matter how brutal Allen is, killing people left and right, it pales compared to the horror of 9/11. Reality trumps fiction. I suppose it takes something away from the movie and leaves a bit of poor taste in the mouth. McQueen’s last words that some day thousands of people will be stuck in such a building turned uncanny prophetic.

There is a parallel as well to human hubris, a combo of the Tower of Babel and the Icaros myth. Humans reaching for the sky, but being only humans with human failings, they get, literally, burnt.

I liked the movie a lot better than I had expected. It works on many levels, and I think that the lack of CGI and other modern tricks forces an emphasis on other element. Not for lack of trying, there is a lot of fire here, but there is also dramatic content.

And with that, I am ready for 1975…



  1. It's big and blustery and not much else. I can't imagine ever wanting to see it a second time, but it's kind of fun while it's going.

    1. Yeah, considering this is 1974 there is a lot going on here. Unfortunately we have seen about a million disaster movies since then, following the same template.

  2. Fun, spectacular, star-studded: probably the peak of the 1970s cycle of disaster movies, along with The Poseidon Adventure.

    I was a bit surprised (and impressed) by the brutality of some of the on-screen deaths, compared to more modern fare.

    Interesting side-note: Paul Newman is unusually silent in this movie, because McQueen contractually insisted the two mega stars have an equal number of spoken words. With Newman featured from the beginning and McQueen only appearing half-way through, Newman's dialogue had to be "rationed".

    1. Indeed. This is not a "sweet" disaster movie, but one where a lot of people suffer a brutal and very graphic death.
      I did not know that anecdote. It seems like a very awkward limitation and reason enough to stick to one mega star in a movie.

  3. LOVE this film!! I'm a disaster movie junkie and will give any of them a chance hoping to find a new gem. That stems from seeing this along with the other two (Poseidon Adventure and Airport) of the big three 70's spectacles at an impressionable age, this and Poseidon in the theatre. But none have ever really equaled those three in their ability to pull me in.

    I think that is partly because while all three were conceived as disaster/adventure epics the filmmakers made sure to have relatable, identifiable characters portrayed by capable performers who pulled you into their plight. That way you remained involved in their story, a key component is often lost on modern films. You need to look no further than the atrocious remake of Poseidon where not only were the characters craven and cruelly indifferent to the fate of others but interchangeably faceless.

    Newman and McQueen easily carry this film but the amount of star power surrounding them is insane. It’s the kind of cast that could be pulled together effortlessly at the time but is next to impossible now. That quantity of classic stars no longer exists. That audience familiarity with say Bill Holden, Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones provides an extra layer to their characters that again puts the film a step above.

    That contract bit about the dialog was an ongoing competition between Newman and McQueen mostly fed by Steve. The two had started out at approximately the same time but Newman achieved big screen success much earlier and it was a sticking point for McQueen. He passed on Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid over billing and role size and when this came along, he actually counted the lines in the script to make sure they were equal. If you notice their billing in the opening and closing credits is staggered so depending on how you read it both appear to have top billing. That again was at McQueen’s insistence. Even with all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans he gives a terrifically enjoyable performance balancing a wry humor in with the seriousness.

    1. I did a review on The Poseidon Adventure earlier (you can find it under Honorable Mentions) and it was a mostly favorable review. I know I am watching template movies when I watch a disaster movie, but there is a part of me who does not really care if the spectacle is big enough.
      These old disaster movies have the charm of being done entirely without CGI, which means they are pushing the envelope on what is possible. Now there is no boundary and that does take some of the fun away.

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