March 3, 2024


Starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, Robert Vaughn, O.J. Simpson, Jennifer Jones, Susan Flannery. Directed by John Guillermin; Action sequences directed by Irwin Allen. (165 min)


Producer Irwin Allen’s seminal disaster film, The Towering Inferno, turns 50 this year. It’s the movie that made me fall in love with movies.

Released in late 1974, I didn’t actually see it until 1975 after it had already been playing at the Southgate Quad for months. I was 11 at the time, and before this one, going to the movies usually meant catching a Disney flick for mine or my sister’s birthday. While I enjoyed going to movies - even the rare times Mom & Dad dragged us to something they wanted to see - I wasn’t particularly enamored with them.

Based on the TV spots and enthusiastic accounts of friends who'd seen it, The Towering Inferno was the first “grown up” movie that really piqued my curiosity. Since my parents had absolutely zero interest, it was also the first PG-rated movie I watched in a theater without them. They dropped off my 9-year-old sister and I - Mom repeatedly warning us not to leave the theater until they returned - and went off to do whatever parents do with a kid-free Saturday afternoon.  

Since it was nearing the end of its theatrical run, the auditorium was fairly empty, so we had our pick of seats. After a couple of trailers for other grown-up films I didn’t care about, the movie started, and for the next 165 minutes, I was transfixed, barely noticing my sister when she occasionally left to use the restroom.

Based on two different novels, The Towering Inferno takes place in San Francisco during the grand opening of a fictional skyscraper called the Glass Tower. At 138 stories, it’s the world’s tallest building, designed by Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and constructed by James Duncan (William Holden). To celebrate its opening, a massive gala is scheduled in the Promenade Room, located on the 135th floor. However, faulty wiring - approved by Duncan’s greedy, cost-cutting son-in-law, Roger (Richard Chamberlain) - sparks a fire in one of the storage rooms on the 81st floor. 

The flames quickly spread, but Duncan refuses Roberts’ pleas to evacuate the Promenade Room, incorrectly assuming a fire fifty floors below can’t possibly affect them. Only after no-nonsense fire chief O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) orders an evacuation does Duncan grudgingly agree to comply. By this time, however, it’s too late. Not only is it extremely difficult to fight a fire that high up, the sprinklers and elevators stop working and several explosions take out the stairs. The 300 partygoers (and most of the supporting cast) are trapped, with only the scenic elevator, running outside of the building, as a possible means of evacuation. But even that plan eventually goes fatally awry…a scene that terrified me as a kid, but looks a bit silly today. 

The best ride in the park.
Another desperate effort involves using a breeches buoy, running from the Promenade Room to the building across the street, in hopes of rescuing people one at a time. However, panic and Roger’s disregard for human life (other than his own) results in the buoy cable snapping, sending several characters plunging to their deaths. A helicopter rescue is attempted on the roof, but high winds cause the chopper to crash and explode while trying to land. In the end, only one option remains to extinguish the fire…Roberts and O’Halloran must blow up the giant water tanks above the Promenade Room, at the risk of drowning the remaining partygoers.

There are plenty of subplots and secondary characters, like Faye Dunaway as Susan, Roberts’ girlfriend and one of those trapped up-top. Then there’s Fred Astaire as Harlee, a con-man trying to dupe widow Losolette (Jennifer Jones), but falling in love with her instead. With hindsight, it’s kinda surreal seeing O.J. Simpson as the head of security who saves a kitty. But at the time, he was the latest NFL superstar making a stab at an acting career. And hey…wasn’t that none other than Bobby Brady as one of the little kids rescued by Roberts?

I left the theater completely blown away. The movie was an epic spectacle of drama and destruction. It had everything…eye-popping special effects, amazing stunts, hand-wringing suspense and the type of grisly deaths you generally didn’t see in a Disney movie…death by fire, death by explosion, death by drowning, death by falling. Such scenes were pretty disturbing to an 11-year-old, yet morbidly fascinating. This was also my introduction to such superstars as Newman, McQueen and the lovely Ms. Dunaway, who might have been my first celebrity crush at the time. The film also had me convinced Steve McQueen was the coolest actor ever (an opinion that hasn’t changed much).

For me, The Towering Inferno was life-changing. Disaster movies quickly became my favorite genre and I tried to catch every film my parents were willing to drive me to…Earthquake, Airport 1975, The Cassandra Crossing, Avalanche, etc. And as disaster’s popularity began to wane toward the end of the decade, I still never passed on the chance to catch the latest Airport sequel or Irwin Allen epic…though some were partially responsible for killing the genre. Throughout the 70s, The Towering Inferno remained the standard by which I judged all the others. Even the ones that came before, including Allen’s own The Poseidon Adventure, never quite matched the visceral thrills of The Towering Inferno (perhaps because I caught them on TV, where movies felt smaller and were edited to make room for Calgon commercials).

"How big was your paycheck?"
I’m sure the producers were as surprised as the rest of the world when The Towering Inferno was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That movie was the reason I actually watched the Oscars for the first time. Considering its competition (The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Lenny and The Conversation), the idea that it had a chance of winning seems laughable to anyone but an 11-year-old, so I was incredulous when it didn't win. While I hadn’t seen any of the other nominated films, surely a boring old movie about an Italian mafia family couldn’t match up to Newman & McQueen saving the day! 

Looking back, The Towering Inferno was the last great disaster movie of the '70s (and the last good movie producer Irwin Allen would be associated with). Was it high art? Not by a long shot. I think everyone involved in its production had no pretenses about what they were making...the type of grand, star-driven melodrama that wasn’t being made much anymore. In light of the “New Hollywood” movement and such auteurs as Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola making waves & getting raves, here came one of the last movies where the studios involved (Warner Brothers & 20th Century Fox) boasted massive star power and bragged how much they spent to bring it to the screen. 

More significantly, The Towering Inferno was the biggest film of 1974 (since surpassed over the years by Blazing Saddles). Until Titanic came along 23 years later to sweep teenage girls off their feet, no other disaster film released before or since would have quite the same impact, both critically and financially. Even today, it is generally considered the quintessential disaster movie, a kitchen sink filled with all of the characters, story elements, destruction, tropes and cliches most associated with the genre.

Though I still remember catching the film for the first time like it was yesterday, The Towering Inferno is now 50 years old, an anniversary that one might think would be celebrated by some kind of restoration, a remastered new Blu-ray or 4K disc...maybe even a special theatrical screening or two from Fathom Events. I suspect none of that will happen though, which is too bad because I’d be first in line to see it on the big screen one more time. 

But the fact remains that, even at the height of its popularity, disaster was never a particularly respected genre, a consensus exacerbated by cynical critics, some legendarily bad films (many from Allen himself) and of course, the mother of all movie parodies. 1980’s Airplane! was a brilliant comedy that made it a challenge to revisit any ‘70s-era disaster film with a straight face. It’s with no small amount of irony that Airplane! is widely regarded as an undisputed classic while the films it mercilessly skewers generally aren’t. Still, The Towering Inferno deserves at least some kind of retrospective acknowledgment as one of the biggest, most influential movies of the decade...even if it only comes from me.

Now that I’m older, wiser and have a much wider range of cinematic interests, The Towering Inferno no longer ranks among the greatest films I’ve ever seen (though Godfather II does). A product of its time, many aspects of the film haven't aged all that well and are sometimes a little chuckleworthy. However, it remains one of my childhood favorites. Revisiting it on occasion, recalling the thrill of first experiencing it at the Southgate Quad all those years ago, fills me with warm nostalgia. After all, this was the movie that made me fall in love with movies.

No comments: