The Towering Inferno (1974) – John Guillermin

The 101 Action Movies brings me to the heights of the 1970s disaster movies with this all-star epic, produced by and some sequences directed by Irwin Allen.

I’ve never been a fan of the disaster film sub genre, but with a cast like this it’s hard not to settle in for the adventure, even with an epic runtime of 165 minutes, that’s almost three hours spent in the company of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely and Fred Astaire.

Combining two novels The Tower and The Glass Inferno, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers came together to make the film jointly as opposed to having two competing similarly themed disaster films at the box office.

Paul Newman is Doug Roberts, a building engineer, whose latest, staggering achievement of a 140 story glass tower housing business, conference centers and apartments, unfortunately, his boss’ (Holden) son-in-law (Chamberlain) met the bare minimum for the electrical wiring to cut costs, something Holden’s character also did without telling Roberts, and on the eve of the buildings grand opening, a small spark in a maintenance room starts ablaze that will change and end lives.

paul-newman-inferno1I liked the fact that there is a dedication at the film’s beginning thanking firefighters for the risks they take and their dedication to their job, and it was good to see that the film tried to be faithful to their procedures.

In this case, the firefighters are led by Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (McQueen), a brusque, get-it-done commander. He also doesn’t appear until 44 minutes into the film.

I would be remiss in my talk of the film if I didn’t mention the rivalry that apparently existed between Newman and McQueen (which honestly saddened me, because I like both actors quite a bit), from staggering their names slightly so neither could claim top billing, to the exact same number of lines (which worked to McQueen’s favor, because Newman is there from the opening scene, so he’s said almost half of his dialogue before McQueen even appears on-screen, and of course dominates the rest of the film). Sigh. Oh well. On the flipside, they both consequently did almost all of their own stunts.

mcqueenHallorhan comes in, establishes his forward camp on the 79th floor, two floors below the expanding blaze. He and his men work to quell it, even as trying to clear out the Promenade room on the higher floors where there’s a gala event celebrating the buildings opening in full swing.

Then, of course, tragedy begins to strike, and celebrities begin dropping like flies.

There is some really good practical effects and pyro-work on this film, given the year it was made, and watching all these familiar faces take on this terrifying event is actually a lot of fun. Some of the effects are kind of hokey, but overall the performances and the writing, allowing characters and backstories to develop first before things go sideways, works to the pictures benefit.

Both Newman and McQueen are equably awesome, and this film stands on the landscape of the disaster genre as one of the standards by which all others will be judged.

With a cast and scope of this nature… that’s still a hard thing to do.

What’s your fave disaster film?


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