THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
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Another Irwin Allen production, The Towering Inferno is one of the all-time great 70s disaster epics that I was privileged to see in a theater…the now long gone Park Lane…as a kid. The flick follows the formula of an all-star cast of characters embroiled in their own personal melodrama until a disaster brings them together…or tears them apart. Here, the setting is the world’s tallest skyscraper in San Franscico. While the building is enjoying it’s dedication ceremony with a massive party, the shortcuts taken by owner James Duncan (William Holden) and his jerk son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain), catch up with them when an electrical fire breaks out on the 81st floor and quickly spreads. Now it’s up to angry architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and Fire Chief Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) to figure out a way to stop the blaze before it reaches the 300 guests at the penthouse floor party, who are now trapped.
Another movie that is well-written by Stirling Silliphant based on two books, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. As with his Poseidon Adventure script, he keeps the melodrama to a minimum and maintains a claustrophobic setting inside the building for most of the film. While John Guillermin directs the film fairly by-the-numbers, the script affords him plenty of opportunity for suspenseful action, daring escapes and some nail-biting rescues. The fact that we also have some well-written characters and the dialog stays remotely grounded, makes for a more realistic and relatable drama. The fire scenes are really intense and well orchestrated, as are some of the sequences outside the building, such as one involving a teetering glass elevator. The action is solid and while the film is moderately paced, it is never dull. If the film has any main flaw, it’s that at 165 minutes it is about 30 minutes too long and thus there is some repetition in the action and subplots that really don’t further the story. For example…Robert Wagner’s entire character and scenes with his secretary (Susan Flannery) could have been removed without effecting the film and trimming it by a good 15 minutes. There is also some weak model work during the climax, but it’s brief and not enough to tarnish a first rate thriller. Back on the plus side, there is yet another effective score from master composer John Williams and Fred J. Koenekamp provides the vibrant cinematography.
There are a lot of characters in this flick With Newman, McQueen and Holden being the top three spots. Newman is a legendary performer and is solid here as the architect who finds out his specs were changed to cut costs and now it has caused a disaster. He dives right in saving lives and assisting McQueen’s fire chief and is a memorable hero. Same said for McQueen. His fire chief is tough, but remains cool under pressure and he is put through the ringer with this out of control blaze in the worst possible place. He and Paul Newman work well as a team and the flick smartly gives them numerous scenes together. Holden’s Duncan is interesting as he is not an outright villain, a role reserved for Chamberlain. He admits he made mistakes and shows remorse and sorrow over the death and destruction it has caused, so we don’t readily hate him like we do his son-in-law. Supporting them are Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn, Susan Blakely, Fred Astaire and the infamous O.J. Simpson as the head of security.
Definitely one of the best of this type of flick due to a toning down of the cheesy melodrama and some very intense action and suspense sequences. It maintains a large cast well and presents a very straightforward depiction of what a disaster like this might be like. If it has any flaws worth mentioning, it’s that it could have lost about a half hour and still been a solid action thriller. The leads are legendary performers who give it their all and the support is generally strong too. There are the usual disaster clichés, but that’s why we watch these flicks! Another 70s disaster movie classic!
3 and 1/2 towering infernos.