Disaster Movies: The Towering Inferno

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Greetings, readers! This week I’m continuing my look back at some classic disaster films. When it comes to disaster films, the producer of producers is Irwin Allen. This week I will be discussing his 1974 production The Towering Inferno. It was directed by John Guillermin and features an all-star cast that includes Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, to name a few.

The plot of The Towering Inferno involves a brand new office building catching fire and everyone’s efforts to escape it.

The finishing touches have just been made to the Glass Tower, a 138-story skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. A huge celebratory gala, complete with VIP guests, has been planned to celebrate the dedication of what has been promoted as the world’s tallest building. But the building’s architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), suspects all is not right with the building. The contractors have used shoddy wiring, not the heavy-duty wiring he had specified. The overworked wiring develops short circuits, coincidentally enough during the height of the celebratory extravaganza; it isn’t long before the Glass Tower becomes a huge towering inferno. The nearly 300 guests become trapped on the building’s 135th floor, where the party takes place. Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) immediately devises a daring plan to rescue the trapped guests, but his efforts quickly become a battle against time and the panicked guests.–IMDB

Like Airport, which I wrote about last week, The Towering Inferno has a pretty simple premise. What makes it fun to watch is its all-star cast, great special effects, and a score by John Williams. Yes, THAT John Williams. The man who is a winner of multiple Oscar-winner scored disaster films early in his career, including most of the ones produced by Irwin Allen.

The Towering Inferno is anchored by Steve McQueen as the fire chief. Even with somewhat clunky dialogue and some truly ridiculous plot points, he is credible. McQueen is convincing as the dedicated fireman. He’s not a pure action hero, as many of McQueen’s characters were. It’s a performance that feels gritty and grounded in reality. Then there’s Paul Newman as the architect of the building. In Newman’s storied career, The Towering Inferno isn’t anywhere near the best roles he ever played. But he brings credibility to the character. Newman’s character is a disillusioned creator in a way. So frustrating when you design something magnificent and then it goes down in flames because people caught corners. Even in the most exaggerated of material, Newman is consummate professional.

There are a few other actors I wish to mention. First,there’s Robert Vaughn as a sleazy senator named Parker. It was fun seeing him in a movie with McQueen again (they previously worked together on the action classic Bullitt). We also get the wonderful William Holden as Jim Duncan, the head of Duncan Enterprises, the architectural/construction empire that built the building. Holden had a long and impressive career like Paul Newman. And even though he isn’t the star of the show, every second he’s onscreen is compelling. Finally, I want to give a shout out to the actor I least expected to see in this movie: Fred Astaire. He sadly doesn’t get to dance in this film. But it’s fun to see him branch out into dramatic territory playing shady businessman Harlee Claiborne. Just seeing him in the movie made me smile.

The other things that stands out about The Towering Inferno are its cinematography and music. The film was photographed by Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph F. Biroc. They won well-deserved Oscars. You can feel the intensity of the flames on the screen and feel the panic of the doomed party attendees in the way closeups are used of their faces. I mentioned earlier that John Williams scored The Towering Inferno. It has some good light music for the earlier celebratory parts of the film. But when things start to hit the fan, Williams delivers some solid action music. I would encourage you to go online and listen to it. One of the reasons Williams has lasted so long is that he can compose for basically any genre. When you can score Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can, and Star Wars, that is range.

The Towering Inferno is overly melodramatic at times. But it’s never boring. Come for the cast, stay for the special effects and John Williams’ score.

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