Friday, April 20, 2012

The Towering Inferno (1974)


          The biggest box-office success of 1974 and in many ways the climax of the ’70s disaster-movie genre, The Towering Inferno is terrible from an artistic perspective, featuring clichéd characters and ridiculous situations spread across a bloated 165-minute running time. Still, it’s fascinating as a case study of how Hollywood operates. First and most obviously, the movie represents producer Irwin Allen’s most successful attempt to mimic the success of his underwater thriller The Poseidon Adventure (1972), because Allen outdoes the previous film with bigger spectacle, bigger stars, and bigger stunts.
          The movie also reflects movie-star gamesmanship. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman agreed to costar, then fought for primacy within the story, each demanding exactly the same number of lines in the script. Even sillier, their agents arranged for the actors’ names to appear in the credits in the same size type but at different heights, so each would have “top” billing even when their names were side-by-side. Furthermore, the movie demonstrates the ease with which greed trumps pride in Hollywood. One studio owned a book about a fire and the other owned a book about a giant high-rise building, so Allen persuaded Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros. to co-produce the movie, an industry first; each studio sacrificed the integrity of its respective brand for half of a sure thing.
          Somewhere amid the power plays, an actual movie got made, and The Towering Inferno is the epitome of what later became known as “high-concept” cinema. It’s about a big building on fire, and that’s the whole story. Sure, there are mini-melodramas, like the romantic tribulations of the folks trapped inside the building and the macho heroics of an architect (Newman) and a fireman (McQueen), but the thing is really about the excitement of seeing which characters will get burned to death, which will fall from terrible heights, and which will survive.
          The plot begins when an engineer cuts corners in order to rush the opening of the Glass Tower, a skyscraper in San Francisco. Once the inevitable blaze erupts, further shortcomings in the building process complicate efforts to rescue trapped occupants. (Elevators, helicopters, rope bridges, and other contrivances are utilized.) As per the Allen playbook, an all-star cast trudges through the carnage, trying to instill cardboard characterizations with life. Richard Chamberlain plays the short-sighted engineer, Faye Dunaway plays Newman’s love interest, William Holden plays the oblivious builder, and Robert Wagner plays a smooth-talking PR man. Others along for the ride include Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Dabney Coleman, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, and Robert Vaughn.
          The Towering Inferno is a handsome production, with director John Guillermin and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp using their widescreen frames to give everything a sense of opulence and scale. Additionally, Allen (who directed the action scenes) knew how to drop debris onto stuntmen. Nonetheless, The Towering Inferno is humorless, long-winded, and repetitive. Amazingly, the movie received a number of Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), and won three of its categories: cinematography, editing, and original song. In Hollywood, nothing earns praise as quickly as financial success.

The Towering Inferno: FUNKY

6 comments:

Chaarles said...

Aaaw come on…. great blog 'n' all, but are you sure you're not being just a little bit stingy on this one? I mean, come on…. great drama, awesome cast, captivating stories, great script, amazing action sequences, a movie everyone remembers seeing and will watch again, not to mention the impact it had, surely it has to be at least a GROOVY, if not a RIGHT ON, or even, comfortably, I would suggest, an OUTTA SIGHT! But… a FUNKY?

By Peter Hanson said...

My test for this one was watching it in quick succession with 'Poseidon Adventure,' which, by comparison, moves so much faster and features more invested performances... To me, 'Towering' is just way too bloated and the acting has too much cash-the-paycheck indifference... Nonetheless, I'm sure the ghost of Irwin Allen appreciates you sticking up for him! Thanks as always for your thoughts...

Tommy Ross said...

Sure sold a lot of tickets but missed the mark for sure.

Mark Sohn said...

I loved it. Schlockety-schlockety-shlock-shlock... it was a showcase of seventies filmmaking and as much as I like the film, it shows how much better some things can be with the word 'Spielberg' attached. BTW-Hope you don't send out Sandmen after me for this; hope it entertains... http://volcanocat.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/disaster-doomed-in-seventies.html

Cindylover1969 said...

The less said about the TV movie ripoff "Terror On The 40th Floor" the better.

ZELIG500 said...

The models of the building...were atrocioius.