I’ve almost always enjoyed disaster movies, or at least the ones that weren’t thrown together for TV or anything like that, so I was mildly excited to give The Towering Inferno a try. Then I saw that it was almost three hours long, and my excitement waned a bit; my attention span seems to have shrunk during my odyssey through the list. Needless to say, however, I got through The Towering Inferno with very little problems. One of, if not, the first films to be a major co-production between two big Hollywood studios, The Towering Inferno was one of the films (along with Airport and The Poseidon Adventure) that paved the way for the slew of disaster movies that would follow in the 1970s. While I’m not sure if this can rightfully be called the king, it is definitely one of the better examples, though it’s hard to avoid the fact that it is pretty long.
Paul Newman is the architect of the newly minted Tallest Building in the World, the Glass Tower in San Francisco, owned by Mr. James Duncan, played by William Holden. On the night of its official opening and dedication, Newman’s architect Doug Roberts begins finding out just how many corners were cut in the construction of the building, all of which come to a head when, to impress the crowds, the electricians are ordered to turn on all the lights in the building, which sparks fires that quickly spread to multiple floors, threatening a gala celebration on one of the top floors with close to 300 people. In rolls the fire department, headed by Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen), and they quickly try and formulate a plan to evacuate the guests and put out the fire, which is rapidly spinning out of control and threatens the entire building. I’ve gone into a little more depth with the plot than normal because, believe it or not, I finished this film with no notes whatsoever written for it. It wasn’t that the film was featureless (although compared to other disaster films, it might seem that way), or even that I was so engrossed that I forgot to take notes; I just found myself not even bothering to look around to find points of discussion to bring up. Maybe it was the concept of the film itself that seemed to blockade my potential scrutiny; this is a film that seems to stand outside of the boundaries of criticism. Looking back, however, there were a few parts that warranted mention. For instance, I could bring up how, for an action film, there is a surprising lack of pure action sequences, opting instead for a slow burn of suspense throughout the film, even during the heightened parts. Or, that the film, much unlike other disaster films, doesn’t opt to introduce all our important characters and expand upon their backstories to make us sympathize with them and yearn for their safety; the film pretty much follows Newman around, and any characters he interacts with are introduced by proxy (with the possible exception of Fred Astaire). The film’s major sell, though, the fire in the tower itself, was well sold indeed; it was hard to distinguish what was a set and what was a location, as damn near everything had either bits or full-on waves of fire throughout. Extra props to the stuntmen on this one as well; they had a literal hell to get through.
There’s a lot of tales and tidbits of trivia about this one, such as how Steve McQueen and Paul Newman argued about who would get top billing, and so they are credited diagonally in the opening and closing credits, or how producer Irwin Allen actually directed all the action sequences and director John Guillerman only helmed the scenes with just acting. Really, there’s a lot to this one indeed, especially given how long it is. That would be my major complaint with The Towering Inferno; it feels exactly the length that it is, and I’m not sure the film warranted the length being drawn out to what it was. Still, for a nearly three-hour film, I got through it no problem, so that should definitely tell you something about the accessibility of this one. If you’re a fan of action/disaster flicks of today, and are interested in seeing where it all came from, this is definitely one to give a try.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10