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MASTERS OF DISASTER – THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)

Masters Of Disaster returns and this week Jonathon Dabell takes a look at one of the biggest all-star disaster spectacles of the 70s – The Towering Inferno, starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and a galaxy of supporting superstars.

Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen) faces a difficult night getting the trapped guests to safety from 135 storeys in the air.

Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) faces a difficult night getting the trapped guests to safety from 135 storeys in the air.

The Towering Inferno was such a colossal undertaking that it marked an unprecedented first: Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox did the hitherto unimagined thing of pooling their resources to get the film made, making it the first joint film venture of this kind between two major Hollywood studios. It was simply too huge and costly for a single studio to fund it alone. Another unusual fact is that the film is adapted from two separate novels: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. As 70s disaster movies go, Airport may have been the one that truly got the ball rolling and The Poseidon Adventure may have set the bar on quality… but The Towering Inferno is a behemoth like nothing that had gone before, a true ‘event ‘ picture, as well as a film of considerable technical skill and spectacle.
It’s the opening night for the world’s new ‘tallest building’ in San Francisco. On the 135th floor, a swanky party is in full swing with various dignitaries in attendance. But lower down, on the 81st floor, an electrical fire has quickly taken hold and is spreading rapidly, trapping everyone above. Fire chief Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) is about to have the toughest night of his life getting the endangered party-goers down to safety.
The cast is mind-boggling for its sheer array of fame and talent. Paul Newman plays the architect who designed the building; Faye Dunaway is his fiancee; William Holden plays the money man responsible for funding the building of the giant skyscraper; Richard Chamberlain is his arrogant son-in-law, the person whose short-cuts have resulted in sub-standard wiring; Susan Blakely plays Chamberlain’s unsuspecting wife; Fred Astaire plays a conniving conman trying to woo fellow guest Jennifer Jones; Robert Wagner is in there too as a public relations officer; and Robert Vaughn plays an American senator invited to the illfated grand opening… the list goes on.

Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) flees the ever-growing blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) flees the ever-growing blaze that threatens to consume them all.

On set, there was a lot of competition between McQueen and Newman, both wanting top-billing and both demanding a greater number of lines than the other. In the end, a bizarre compromise was struck. They both received exactly the same wages, they both received exactly the same number of lines of dialogue, and their names were placed on the credits in a strange way so that McQueen’s appeared on the left of the screen slightly lower, while Newman’s appeared on the right slightly higher. This meant for people who tend to read credits left-to-right McQueen would appear to be first-billed, but those who tend to read them from top-to-bottom would be more inclined to say Newman heads the cast. Such games seem a little petty all these years on – it’s better to focus instead on the fact that the film is a slice of grade-A, grand entertainment.
From the opening moments – as John Williams’ gloriously bombastic score sets up the epic drama ahead, to the thrilling finale in which the fire-fighters resort to a desperate do-or-die tactic to bring the blaze under control – the film is a fine example of its kind. The rather wonderful cast bring their characters to life, eliciting sympathy, pity and disdain in equal measure. Not all of the survivors are pleasant types, and not all the victims deserve what’s coming to them. The story plays reasonably fair in that way. Some of the grisly demises we can cheer on with smug satisfaction, while others leave us genuinely upset and scarred.

Conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) is left traumatised by the events of the evening.

Conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) is left traumatised by the events of the evening.

Of the leading men, McQueen slightly edges it as the courageous fire-fighter at the centre of the rescue efforts. Not that Newman is in any way inadequate – it’s just that Steve has fractionally the better part. Holden is excellent as the furious building mogul, while Chamberlain generates considerable hate as his snivelling, deceitful son-in-law. Also worthy of note are Astaire and Jones, he as the elegant conman out to fleece her, until both of them finds their priorities shifting as the tragedy unfolds.
The fire effects are pretty convincing throughout and there are several palm-sweating, exciting sub-stories, including one extended sequence in which Newman and Jones and a couple of kids try to make their way through an unstable stairwell to rejoin the others.
John Guillermin directs effectively, marshalling the gargantuan cast from one exciting set-piece to the next, while the great Fred J. Koenekamp provides excellent cinematography which captures the excitement in all its widescreen glory. At 165 minutes, the film is very long; indeed the one criticism – albeit a minor one – that can be levelled at it is that it is a shade overlong. The first hour of the film feels like it could be 15 minutes tighter without hurting the plot or character development, but this is only a very small carp and is certainly not enough to harm the picture overall.

Theatrical poster for The Towering Inferno (1974).

Theatrical poster for The Towering Inferno (1974).

All things considered, The Towering Inferno is one of the absolute bona fide ‘crown jewels’ in the disaster genre. They don’t make ’em like they used to is an overused cliche when talking about films, but in the case of this movie it couldn’t be more apt.

MoM Rating: 9/10

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