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. A pair of books with useful narrative elements involving burning buildings were owned by different studios, 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