Film: The Towering Inferno

Seeing Underwater recently reminded me of my inexplicable soft spot for disaster movies—especially those of the 1970s, with their enormous all-star casts, simplistic scripts, and clumsy blockbuster ambitions. This prompted me to re-watch The Towering Inferno (1974), a film I half-liked when I watched it twenty-odd years ago, but liked much more this time, but only because I was taking it less seriously. It’s a film that metaphorically lives up to its name: a huge, fiery production about a brand-new building in San Francisco. Designed by brilliant, dashing architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), the Glass Tower is a masterpiece of skyscraper engineering. Unfortunately, the wealthy real-estate developer who financed its construction, James Duncan (William Holden), handed over a few too many contracts to his incompetent, corner-cutting son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain). This leads to widespread, faulty safety features throughout the entire edifice, which are stressed during the building’s dedication ceremony, which involves a hoidy-toidy black-tie affair on the 135th floor. Sure enough, the worst comes to pass and a series of fires break out, trapping hundreds of party-goers above the blaze. An army of brave firefighters, led by the ultra-competent Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), arrives to battle the fire, an epic struggle that sees a mix of qualified successes and massive tragedies.

The Towering Inferno is a boisterous, lavish affair by 1970s standards. It’s also mostly an empty spectacle. Oh, it makes nods at a cautionary theme; specifically, in the scenes where the people responsible for the skyscraper’s increasingly dire plight squabble and moralize at each other about the responsibilities of power which they have all—through corruption, nepotism, or sheer oversight—shirked. But really this one’s all about the concept: big stars, in escalating danger, on elaborate sets that are gradually collapsing around them. As such, it’s a dated but generally entertaining film, even if it wastes most of its star-studded roster (including Holden, Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, and Robert Vaughn, among others) on placeholder characters. Fortunately, McQueen and Newman anchor the proceedings with resourceful heroics, and despite its straightforward plot, it has a surprisingly grim worldview and a fair amount of suspense. It probably won’t hold up well for modern viewers, but cinephiles curious about the history of the disaster film might want to take a look at this one, since it’s something of an early template for the genre.

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