The mid-1970s witnessed a wave of disaster movies with ensemble casts and enormous budgets, all of which accompanied the rise of the modern summer blockbuster. The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake are but two culprits. Escapism was the cinematic sentiment of the era. People just wanted things loud, colourful, and to blow up.
The Towering Inferno, released in 1974 and the first ever joint production by two distributors, in this case Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, finally beheld the dual billing of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, the latter having originally been requested for Newman’s comical counterpart in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but declining due to Paul’s getting top billing and his getting second. But at last the two were on the big screen, leading an all-star cast, with Newman playing the title tower’s architect Doug Roberts and McQueen playing the cool and collected chief fireman Mike O’Hallorhan who has to race against the cliché clock of catastrophe to put out a fire that progressively ensnares the building’s lofty length over the movie’s equally elevated runtime of three hours.
Inferno’s adapted story is for the most part structurally sound. The tallest building in the world, the Glass Tower, is being unveiled, celebrated by a cornucopia of bigheaded bourgeois including the Tower’s builder, his arrogant son, and a Senator provided by Robert Vaughn. Before it becomes clear that the tower’s electrical specifications have been tampered with, a spark ignites a blaze that soon ravages the skyscraper’s 81st floor and beyond. It’s then up to the upper class charming bravery of Roberts to keep the guests under control at the tower’s top, and the working class masculine grit of O’Hallorhan to defeat the movie’s natural enemy: the fire. In between, the flames of love occupy several subplots. On paper, the movie could have easily become an incoherent mess of characters we don’t care much about, but in practice, it strings together a series of romantic interests with confidence as you never lose sight of the bigger and hotter picture.
From opening to closing credit, the Inferno is a spectacular feast of visual flavour, with far less camp than many a disaster film before it. The building itself, whether in full scale or in miniature, casts a looming and monumental presence over the film, as frequent re-establishing shots not only take the viewer aback for a moment to examine the continual carnage in the growing pace of the fire, but keep the image of the tower always at the forefront of your mind. The special effects are just what you’d expect from a big-budget blockbuster, awesome to the eyes and ears, the obvious highlights including any scene that’s combustible. If three hours sitting on your ass seems a bore, the hectic flare of the film will prove the able painkiller.
Loud, colourful, and explosive, The Towering Inferno was in ’74 and still is in 2011 one of the more entertaining disaster films, perhaps one more relevant today than yesterday. Building on fire, people trying to get out… what does that remind you of? At the end of the movie, Steve McQueen offers a solemn reflection which happens to also serve as an eerie prediction, that “one of these days, ten thousand are going to be killed in one of these firetraps”, and if that’s not enough, the building that many of the tower’s trapped occupants escape to is none other than the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Relevant and reminiscent indeed, and in the opinion of this reviewer, much more enjoyable Saturday night movie material than most of the catalogue of either Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay. An action movie scorching with stars, fueled with fire and dynamite delight, The Towering Inferno still stands both tall and, though perhaps not the temperature at which freedom burns, damn hot.