The Towering Inferno
Release year: 1974
Director: John Guillermin
Screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant, Richard Martin Stern (Novel), Thomas N. Scortia (Novel), Frank M. Robinson
Starring: Paul Newman, Steven McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, William Holden, Susan Flannery, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, O.J. Simpson
Ratings: 3 Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Song. 5 Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Original Score. 2 Golden Globes: Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire), Most Promising Newcomer Female (Susan Flannery)
Moviegeek Sunday Classic #21, week 44 2014
On the night of the opnening party for the new highest building in the world, a fire breaks out on 81th floor trapping the party guests on the top floor of the skyscraper.
Gathering some of the biggest names of it’s time and with a running time that gives time for the characters to develop, The Towering Inferno is an epic movie and a must for anyone who enjoys disaster movies. If there is a main character it is Paul Newman’s (Cool Hand Luke 1967) architect Doug Roberts, who designed the tower and therefore feels responsible for helping as many people out of the burning hell as possible even though the problem isn’t his design, but rather poor moneysaving decissions made by Simmons, deliciously slick and selfish, played by Richard Chamberlain (The Last Wawe 1977). So after a build up, slow but never boring, where we meet one wonderful character after another, fire is detected by security guard O.J. Simpson (The Naked Gun 1988), but all hell doesn’t break loose. Instead it creeps up on it’s victims like a sneaky serial killer, attacking them one by one until it has grown into a fuming monster of fire and smoke threatening to swallow everyone in the building. Enter hero nr. two: Steve McQueen (The Getaway 1972) as fire chief Mike O’Hallorhan, who attacks the monster fearlessly and experienced, giving good match to Newman as the two everyday heroes team up to save the city’s high society trapped on top of the world. Fred Astaire (Top Hat 1935) has a small but far from unsignificant part, played with so much charm that he leaves a big impression and manages to have as much presence as possible with his limited screen time. Though Faye Dunaway (China Town 1974) and Susan Flannery (The Gumball Ralley 1976) are brilliant and deliver tender and heartbreaking performances, the female of the cast that steals your heart is a magnificent Jennifer Jones (The Song of bernadette 1943) who, in this the last role of her career, plays Lisolette, the woman who fearlessly risks her own life to go toward the fire to warn and save a deaf mother and her two children, unaware of the grave danger they are in. She is so fierce in her actions, yet incredibly vulnerable and fragile in her appearance, and she leaves an impression that stays with you after the movie is finished.
The many, many stars and their stellar performances aside, this is a disaster movie and one from the 1970’s, which means there is a danger that the specail effects have aged to a degree where they are themselves a disaster in today’s eyes. But in fact they appear as were they made yesterday and are, pardon my laguage, convincing as hell. Not for one second will they distract you from the story, instead they are integrated into the film as a character in their own right, actually making the fire the lead of the movie. If like me you grew up with this movie, don’t fear watching it again, it still holds! If you have never seen, don’t hesitate watching this epic of disaster, fire, and a cast made in heaven.
NB: The trailer contains spoilers!
Paul Newman later regretted his decission to co-star with Steve McQueen because of the rivalry between the two, created by McQueen. As a result, the fireman role dominates over Newman’s architect. For one the two characters had on McQueen’s insistence the same number of lines. Since McQueen’s character doesn’t appear untill 43 minutes into the film, Newman had almost used half his lines before that.
Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway left strict instructions that they sholdn’t be approached by visitors on set. McQueen also refused to give any interviews. Paul Newman asked only not to be ”surprised”.
During filming an actual fire broke out on one of the sets and Steve McQueen found himself briefly helping real firemen put it out. One of the firemen said to the actor, ”My wife is not going to believe this.” To this McQueen replied; ”Neither is mine.”