The Towering Inferno (1974)

Directed by John Guillermin
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp

The film was a critical success, earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was the highest-grossing film released in 1974. The film was nominated for eight Oscars in all, winning three. In addition to McQueen and Newman, the cast includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Gregory Sierra, Dabney Coleman and, in her final film, Jennifer Jones.

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McQueen, Newman, and William Holden all wanted top billing. Holden was refused, his long-term standing as a box office draw having been eclipsed by both McQueen and Newman. To provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have “first” billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom,the first of countless times in which billing would be displayed this way in films. McQueen is mentioned first in the film’s trailers. In the cast list rolling from top to bottom at the film’s end, however, McQueen and Newman’s names were arranged diagonally as at the beginning; as a consequence, Newman’s name is fully visible first there.

McQueen and Newman were promised the same pay and number of lines, which meant that one had to shoot additional scenes to equalize the dialog..

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Fire cracker

19 April 2004 | by Merwyn Grote (majikstl@aol.com) (St. Louis, Missouri) – See all my reviews

The all-star blockbuster THE TOWERING INFERNO proves that you can make a bad film that still manages to be a great movie. Contrary to conventional wisdom, special effects and elaborate stunt work can actually be the star of a movie and provide ample compensation for poor writing, clumsy direction and really amateurish acting.

THE TOWERING INFERNO is, of course, a disaster movie, the methodical destruction of a high-rise skyscraper, along with many of its tenants. It came on the heels of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and quite honestly is no match for that film’s delicious mix of sappy sentimentality and hammy heroics. But, while its dramatic quality is only marginally superior to hack films like AIRPORT ’75 and the atrocious EARTHQUAKE, INFERNO provides a masterful blend of audience manipulation and technical craftsmanship. As Paul Newman pointed out to the press, neither he nor his perpetual professional rival Steve McQueen are the star of the film: the fire is the star. And as appropriate to any star, the fire, in all of its glorious mayhem, is lovingly filmed and given a wide berth to overact with style.

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The rest of the cast should be so lucky. The remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime cast (Newman, McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, etc.) behave like troopers, even though they are primarily reduced to being little more than high priced props. Most of the scenes involving actual human interaction seem rushed and the inept line readings of the inane dialogue suggest that no one bothered with retakes, let alone rehearsals. But such moments are little more than filler, marking time between some of the most remarkable actions sequences ever filmed. The helicopter rescue of the derailed scenic elevator is heartstoppingly thrilling, even as you realize that it is absolutely physically impossible. And it is overshadowed by the explosive final showdown with the villainous fire. Hollywood has cinematically destroyed greater amounts of real estate, but seldom with such style.

As art, THE TOWERING INFERNO is a fizzle, but as a cheap carnival thrill show it’s pretty hot stuff.

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Did someone leave a cigarette burning?

7/10
Author: clydestuff from United States
2 February 2004

Having struck box office gold two years earlier with The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen aided by the combined financing of Fox and Warner Bros., decided to do himself one better with The Towering Inferno. No expense was spared, as evidenced by Allen securing the services of two of the top box office draws available in Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Next, he hedged his bet with a supporting cast that ran the gamut from William Holden, Fred Astaire and Faye Dunaway to soap actress Susan Flannery and football star O.J. Simpson. Add a lot of fire, a lot of smoke, a lot of flaming and charred humans and you have the makings of a box office bonanza. It’s amazing that the budget was held down to a mere $14 million dollars even in 1974 dollars. Did it work? The film grossed $116 million dollars which was quite a princely sum in those days so the answer to that as far as Allen, Fox, and Warner Bros. is concerned would be yes.

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Newman plays architect Doug Roberts who has been away in the jungle somewhere but is returning home just in time for the grand opening of the tallest building ever to grace California that he just happened to have designed. Doug is also returning home to his mistress played by Faye Dunaway to persuade her to join him on his next project. The head of the company building the tower is James Duncan(William Holden) whom has left a lot of the details of the construction of the tower to his no good son-in-law, Roger Simmons(Richard Chamberlain). That turns out to be bad news for everyone unfortunate to find themselves in The Tower. After some of the wiring in the building begins to have a major meltdown, Doug investigates to find that Roger has cut so many corners it could lead to a major catastrophe. Was there any doubt?

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Despite the abundance of headlining actors in Towering Inferno, the true star of the film is the disaster itself, just as it is in any of these concoctions. Allen directed the action sequences with John Guillerman handling the rest of the chores. Allen does himself proud. Although we know of course that The Tower is not truly as tall as the filmmakers would have us believe, it’s not obvious enough to detract from the film. It doesn’t matter though, as most of the action takes place inside the building or near the suite at the top where most of our stars end up trapped. Of course this being a disaster film, we do get the privilege of watching flaming bodies fall over a hundred stories, be it it outside or down an elevator shaft.

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Allen also does well at piling on the suspense and keeps you on edge for long moments, with such things as a long climb up a flaming stare well and a long decent down a scenic elevator that will have you wringing your hands. The fire sequences are all well staged as you can almost feel the flames leaping through the screen and smell the smoke circling around the room.

The problem with most disaster films is that with the good, there is generally some bad and Inferno is no exception. Some of the dialog in this film is truly horrendous.

Example:

Duncan: How bad is it? Halloran: It’s a fire. All fires are bad

James Duncan: Give me the architect that designed you, and who needs Doug Roberts? Susan: I do.

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In one truly silly moment, after Dan Bigelow(Robert Wagner) and his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery)have just finished love making, the fire has engulfed the room next to theirs. Lorrie, being the ever observant secretary and mistress sniffs and delivers this line: “Did someone leave a cigarette burning?”

The best of the actors is easily Steve McQueen. As Chief Michael O’Hallorhan who is called to put the fire out, he seems to relish has role as a fire department head. Paul Newman on the other hand is a mixed bag. When he’s playing his scenes with McQueen, Holden, Dunaway, or Chamberlain, he’s OK. In other scenes, especially when the fire initially breaks out, he appears stiff and uncomfortable. Fred Astaire is on hand as the whimsical con artist Harlee Claiborne out to bilk Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones)with some phony stocks. Jones is one of the best things going in this movie, turning out to be quite the heroine. Dunaway as Robert’s girlfriend Susan is dry enough that we wish they could have brought Joanne Woodward in to give the relationship some real spark (no pun intended).

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Wagner as Dan Bigelow is a charmer but we just can’t buy into his relationship with Lorrie (Susan Flannery). Susan Blakely as Patty Simmons, Holden’s spoiled daughter and the wife of Roger (Richard Chamberlain)has nothing much to do except chastise her husband for causing Daddy a big headache. Chamberlain, on the other hand, seems to like playing the role of the villain and he does it well. You’ll have no trouble believing just how big of a jerk Roger is. Last , is O.J. Simpson as the security guard who seems to be smarter than everybody else. The role requires little and in his big screen debut, Simpson gives it just that.

No matter. The Towering Inferno will still entertain you. At 165 minutes, you’ll only be looking at your watch in the first half hour or so as you wait for that one tiny spark to ignite a night of suspense. Irwin Allen put quite a spectacle on the screen, but unfortunately never again duplicated it and with each subsequent film his product went from bad to being truly mediocre. Considering how much I really liked this film, it’s a shame. Now, please put out that cigarette.

My Grade: B

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The crowning glory of a much maligned genre.

9/10
Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
4 May 2008

A newly built state of the art high-rise is hosting a big society gathering when a fire starts up on the 81st floor…

Warner Brothers & 20th Century Fox were both keen to cash in on the success of 1972s The Poseidon Adventure, Warner’s buying the rights to The Tower, and Fox buying the rights to The Glass Inferno, both novels about burning skyscrapers and seemingly ripe for a big screen adaptation. Enter producer Irwin Allen who smartly suggested that both studios should come together and produce one blockbusting genre defining film. Splitting the cost down the middle, The Towering Inferno was born and went on to make over $100 million across the globe, a very impressive take for its time, and certainly a shot in the arm for disaster genre enthusiasts.

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The Towering Inferno is far from flawless, it contains some cheese sodden dialogue, and the film’s running time doesn’t quite do the film any favours. However, the film’s strengths far outweigh the handful of negatives that are often used to beat it up with. The sets are fabulous (Academy Award Nominated) and all to perish in the fire, the cinematography from Fred J Koenekamp (Academy Award Winner) is lush and puts the fire in the eyes, while the score from John Williams (Academy Award Nominated) is suitably poignant and edgy. What about the action sequences? The set pieces? With many of the illustrious cast doing their own stunts! All impacting sharp on the ears thanks to the brilliant sound from Soderberg & Lewis (Academy Award Nominated), with the cast itself a reminder of a wonderful time when only the big names were considered for the big projects, McQueen, Newman, Holden, Astaire (Academy Award Nominated) & Dunaway rolling off the tongue like a who’s who of entertainment heavyweights.

Film and Television

Some say that The Towering Inferno finally killed off the ailing disaster genre, no it didn’t, it crowned it, and all the others that followed were merely trailing in its wake. The Towering Inferno is a spectacular production that positively booms with high entertainment values, no expense is spared in the pursuit of entertaining the masses, it’s thoughtful in texture and it teaches as it plays and it remains to me a wonderful archaic gem. 9/10

The Titanic Of The Skyscrapers

7/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
21 January 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although some like to compare The Towering Inferno to The Poseidon Adventure because Irwin Allen that master of disaster brought us both, in point of fact The Towering Inferno is more like a landlocked Titanic than anything else.

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It has to be remembered that the Titanic was on its maiden voyage and was ballyhooed as an unsinkable ship when the tragedy occurred. The building that William Holden built, that Paul Newman designed was also on its maiden voyage so to speak. The 135 story building in San Francisco was being dedicated and there was going to be a big blowout on the top floor with all kinds of VIPS in attendance. Little does Holden suspect that his son-in-law Richard Chamberlain cut quite a few safety corners in the electrical wiring. When the whole tower gets lighted up, a fire breaks out in one of the circuit junction boxes and the party gets cut short.

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as the fire battalion chief head an impressive cast list of name players put in harm’s way by Chamberlain’s avarice. Fred Astaire got an Academy Award nomination for playing an elderly conman who tricks his way into the VIP gathering to fleece wealthy widow Jennifer Jones. This was Jones’s farewell performance on screen, she retired right after that to become just the kind of wealthy society matron she plays here.

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The film got an award for Best Cinematography deservedly so, the shots are quite vivid and also the best song of 1974. During the party scene, Maureen McGovern who had introduced the popular There’s Got To Be A Morning After in Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure sings We May Never Get To Love Like This Again. It won for best song, but certainly didn’t have the lasting popularity of the other.

The most vivid moment of the film for me besides the climax is the illfated rendezvous of Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery. They agree for a boss secretary rendezvous in his apartment there and Wagner turns off the phone so word cannot reach them of the fire. The death scenes of both will tear you up.

According to the Films of Steve McQueen the reason for the joint production by Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox is that when two studios put out two Harlow films, both cut each other up at the box office and no one made out. Warner Brothers purchased The Tower and Fox bought the Glass Inferno screen rights. Rather than have competing disaster films, they made an historic interstudio agreement to have a joint production.

I think it worked out well all around.

Joseph Biroc, Irwin Allen and Robert Wagner

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