So ambitious in scope that it necessitated the very first intra-studio collaboration in Hollywood history between 2oth Century-Fox and Warner Bros. – each, having purchased a competing literary property with a similarly themed ‘people in peril’ fire/rescue scenario, and, so blindingly star-studded, one New York critic astutely labeled it as “Grand Hotel in flames”; The Towering Inferno (1974), co-directed by the master of disaster, Irwin Allen and John Guillerman, remains a colossal undertaking by any stretch of the imagination. Forty-one years later, and despite its lengthy 165 min. run time, it endures as a peerless example of extraordinary stunt work and supreme script economy. Allen, who practically had to browbeat investors to get his first disaster classic, 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, off the ground (or perhaps, out of dry dock would be a more fitting bit of hyperbole) could effectively write his own ticket in Hollywood after that movie made a clean sweep at the box office.
Allen’s formula was simple though no less effective: take a group of A-list celebrities and old-time stars and place them in imminent peril. For one reason or another, the disaster subgenre had not enjoyed such resurgence since the late 1930’s; perhaps, in part, because the world at war throughout the 1940s and its subsequent bright-eyed optimism in the 1950s bred a pie-eyed focus on seemingly more innocent, escapist pursuits. Alas, the sixties, with their embracement of hippies, drugs and rock n’ roll; also, disillusioned by a series of political assassinations and scandals, to say nothing of the mounting uncertainties brought on by the Viet Nam conflict, turned yet another corner in America’s culture evolution. In Hollywood, this effectively translated into a new and less certain era in picture-making, extolling the counterculture: smaller, grittier, uglier independently-made movies catching the tailwinds of this popular zeitgeist.
Viewed today, one can appreciate producer/director, Irwin Allen’s verve for attempting to straddle two eras in the movie-maker’s ever-evolving milieu with The Towering Inferno; on the one-hand, feeding into the public’s polarized cynicism railing against authority, herein played out as the specter of big business run amuck to save a buck, while harking all the way back to the glam-bam of ole Hollywood; particularly in fattening his roster of talent with such ‘name above the title’ personages as Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, William Holden and Robert Wagner; all icons from another lifetime in the industry. To helm the production, Allen turned to two of the biggest stars of their time; Steve McQueen and Paul Newman – each, a reigning he-man with genuine box office muscle; at least, enough to conquer the steel and concrete behemoth Allen and his special effects wizards were about to ignite like a roman candle on the 4th of July. Above all else, The Towering Inferno is Allen’s cautionary tale about fire safety and the rather lax and marginally outdated characteristics of then present-day building codes.
Working from a stockpile of well-formulated research on the inherent legal flaws in this ensconced honor system of checks and balances, Allen’s skepticism for the construction industry would ring ominously true on November 21, 1980, when Las Vegas’ most lavishly appointed hotel, the MGM Grand, went up in flames, killing 87 people; the third largest hotel fire on record in the U.S. Today, equally there are aspects of The Towering Inferno that closely align it to the thought-numbing tragedy of Sept. 11th, 2001. As example, it is quite impossible to view the moment in the movie where a terrorized and trapped Susan Flannery breaks open a window, only to be forced from it to her death by a blast of oxygen-fueled flames as a counterpoint to another image immediately conjured to mind: that of the infamous iconography of the World Trade Center’s ‘falling man’ still clutching his briefcase. Yet, The Towering Inferno really ought to be remembered apart from these terrible real-life circumstances gleaned from our collective reality. For, in Irwin Allen’s genuine love of the disaster epic and his unrelenting zeal to make two of the finest contributions to its repertoire, The Towering Inferno remains an immersive and impressive achievement on par with the greatest artistry yet achieved on the movie screen. It is the ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘Citizen Kane’ of its genre and ilk.
In preparing his movie, Allen assembled an extraordinary team of dedicated stunt professionals to perform the many hazardous maneuvers necessary to convince his audience the blaze was not only real, but extremely terrifying to pull off, getting up close and personal with old man fire. Time-honored as well as new techniques in layering stunt men and women with protective clothing coated in highly flammable and slow-burning liquids created the uncanny effect of setting real human flesh afire. One of the most impressive aspects of The Towering Inferno is that, apart from a few superbly blended matte shots and extremely clever usage of miniatures, virtually all of the visuals are accomplished full scale; the fire cleverly ‘controlled’ using a series of regulated gas jets and flame throwers to direct the flames while keeping the actors safe.
For the flooding of the tower’s rooftop Promenade Room, Irwin Allen had his production designer, William J. Creber design an elaborate set, built and raised several feet off the floor within one of Fox’s cavernous sound stages. This was surrounded by a 360 degree backlit cyclorama of the San Franciscan skyline; the entire interior framed overhead by an elaborate rigging and dump tanks capable of dropping nearly a million gallons of water. While Creber’s designs were heavily influenced by what passed for uber-contemporary chic good taste then, the Promenade Room also borrowed many of its props and furniture from the Harmonia Gardens interior built for Hello Dolly! (1969). Keen eyes will immediately identify the elaborate and multi-tiered fountains, herein transformed into oversized terrariums, complete with plastic foliage, and the lattice work encircling the layered ballroom, also with statuary adorning the top of its bar: all of it, relics from John DeCuir’s 14th Street exteriors for Dolly!. The shame of it is all this Hollywood craftsmanship was destroyed by both flames and the flash flooding during the climatic deluge.
The Towering Inferno remains a singularly sobering experience today, perhaps because it does not spare its star-studded ensemble from the probability not all will make it out alive. Indeed, too few do, adding a curious patina of sincerity to these life and death scenarios played out with arguably greater satisfaction from the vantage of our more jaded contemporary tastes. If only made a decade earlier, the likelihood of survival amongst this celebrity sect would have been considerably higher. As it stands, about half this glittering assemblage will die cruelly – arguably, realistically – due to the absurd cost-cutting measures employed by a pair of ambitious men, merely to satisfy their bottom line; multi-billionaire/builder, Jim Duncan (William Holden) and his arrogantly insecure son-in-law, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain). The proverbial fly in their ointment is architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who, having designed this fire trap under more altruistic pursuits of architectural integrity, has nevertheless become a complicity pawn in the disaster about to unfold, simply by choosing to remain largely absent during the glass tower’s construction phase. It is this neglect that gnaws at Doug, turning to Duncan after narrowly surviving a ruptured gas main, to coldly inquire with clear-eyed, bitter irony, “What do they call it when you kill people?”
Most of the supporting roles in The Towering Inferno are little more than superfluous distractions, meant to delay the outbreak of fire: Fred Astaire’s enterprising con, Harlee Claiborne, intending to sell his latest victim, Lisolette Muir (Jennifer Jones) a fraudulent stake in Greater Anaheim Power and Light – fake company; Robert Vaughn’s cordial Senator Gary Parker, plotting his political advantage in sharing in Duncan’s success as part of his ‘urban renewal’ contract; Susan Blakley’s suffering newlywed, Patty – Duncan’s daughter and Roger’s conflicted wife; Faye Dunaway, as Doug’s paramour, Susan Franklin, torn between a budding career as a senior editor and her devotion to this brilliant man; O.J. Simpson’s ever-loyal security guard, Jernigan, rescuing Lisolette’s trapped cat, Elkie and Mrs. Allbright (Carol McEvoy) from certain death; Jack Collins and Sheila Allen as Mayor and Paula Ramsay, devoted marrieds who sincerely worry how their teenage daughter – left at home – will manage without them…should it come to that. Sterling Silliphant’s screenplay astutely tracks all these dramatic threads as our starry-eyed ensemble navigate through the rigors and perils of this fiery labyrinth.
Paul Newman’s Doug Roberts must rank among his finest performances; a minor curiosity, given Newman’s relative dearth in memorable dialogue. In its place, Silliphant’s screenplay affords Doug a spectacular amount of amateur theatrics, exercising Newman’s chest-thumping virility. In some ways, it is a flashier role than the one afforded Steve McQueen. At age 49, Newman illustrates an uncannily youthful agility, pulling off a ferocious he-man half his years, scaling dilapidated fire escapes and dodging the white hot flames licking at his heels. However, playing love interest to Faye Dunaway could not have been easy. Like Judy Garland before her, Dunaway was notorious for crippling bouts of stage fright anxieties. Frequently, she kept costars waiting, in the process infuriating co-star, William Holden, who considered her behavior the height of unprofessionalism. However, Dunaway could be opinionated too. Initially, she fought director, John Guillermin on a ‘love scene’ in which she appears in only a scant pair of red satin panties and bra, lying next to Doug after their supposed flagrante delicto. To diffuse the situation, Newman appeared on time and on set, stripped down to his boxers, donning a pair of cowboy boots complete with spurs, and, at the appropriate moment, pulling back the covers to reveal his unscripted attire, casually inquiring, “Is this kinky enough for you, Faye?” It was quite enough to break the tension in the air.
The other great star turn in The Towering Inferno undeniably belongs to Steve McQueen as Fire Chief, Mike O'Hallorhan. McQueen, noted for his competitive nature, particularly when pitted against other great talents he admired, insisted on co-star billing above the title – his name registering just slightly higher than Newman’s in the title credits. McQueen also ordered his fire chief’s insignia to be remade oversized in order to stand out from the other similarly attired firemen. Guillermin had been wary of what testosterone-infused ego might rear its ugly head as McQueen and Newman gathered together for the first time. Alas, neither had anything to fear; McQueen and Newman instantly bonding as the best of friends; McQueen slightly in awe of Newman’s reigning star presence and Newman fairly congenial and unassuming. In point of fact, Newman, McQueen and Dunaway could frequently be found sharing hearty laughs in between takes; Dunaway mildly amused as both men playfully competed to ‘impress’ her with a series of increasingly off-color jokes.
For seriousness, The Towering Inferno would rely mostly on Irwin Allen and John Guillermin, sharing directorial credit. The powers that be at Fox and Warner Bros. had insisted on Guillermin – a name they believed possessed more experience to helm such a costly production. In trade, Allen would direct the fire sequences and be allowed creative input on the rest of the movie. The Towering Inferno might never have come about had both studios not acquired similarly themed novels about a skyscraper going up in flames; with pivotal plot points from Richard Martin Stern’s The Tower and Thomas N. Scortia’s The Glass Inferno combined in Stirling Silliphant’s superbly amalgamated screenplay. Fox and Warner’s decision to join forces on a single venture proved extremely profitable for all concerned, as well as establishing a precedence for co-production; The Towering Inferno grossing more than $116,000,000 in the U.S. alone on its ‘then’ epic $14 million dollar budget, making it one of the most successful motion pictures of all time.
Viewed today, Irwin Allen’s philosophical bias on architectural esthetics versus fire safety is relentless; his interval insertions of nondescript extras, decrying the lack of fire preparedness drills becoming a pivotal point, blatantly over-exaggerated in the sequence where Doug and Lisolette discover a turned over wheelbarrow of congealed cement in a stairwell, the mess blocking their escape into the Promenade Room. The notion of the skyscraper itself, begun as a uniquely American – and arguably, Freudian – symbol of progress, is herein subverted; the phallus turning on its creators. But behind the scenes Irwin Allen transformed the filming of The Towering Inferno into a social event on par with the very best junket and marketing his own creative genius for press and promotion could buy. For starters, he housed his formidable cast in lavishly appointed bungalows adjacent the sound stage, encouraging a sense of community and interaction. Co-star, Richard Chamberlain has recalled the sheer excitement generated by these closed quarters, being in the presence of Fred Astaire and William Holden, both of whom he greatly admired. Apart from Holden losing his temper with Faye Dunaway’s repeated ‘tardiness’, which forced Allen to do double duty as both a director and star-wrangler to smooth over the rough edges, filming on The Towering Inferno progressed without incident.
The Towering Inferno opens with a breathtaking series of aerial shots; a helicopter emblazoned with the logo for Duncan Enterprises flying low across the southern Californian landscape, passing over exotic windswept beaches, lush green hilly countryside and flying through a spectacular roadblock of fluffy white clouds, emerging on the other side as we approach the Golden Gate Bridge. From this bird’s eye view, architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) surveys the cosmopolitan panorama of San Franciscan skyscrapers, the centerpiece of the city’s hub, his newly built glass tower (actually a convincing matte painting). Landing on its’ roof, Doug is met by the builder, James Duncan (William Holden), grinning with the Cheshire’s share of pride. Jim implores Doug to reconsider his decision to retire at the peak of his powers. However, Doug remains steadfast in his pursuit of a quieter life, jokingly telling Duncan to come down after the reception and watch him ‘burn his black tie’; a prophetic irony, very shortly, and regrettably, to bear itself out.
Returning to his offices on the 79th floor, Doug is reunited with his paramour, book publisher, Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway). She has arranged for a romantic rendezvous in his private suite, complete with champagne luncheon and silken sheeted pull-out bed. Doug has assumed Susan plans to accompany him to the country. Alas, she has been offered a promotion at work, one that pits her dreams against Doug’s. This awkward crux in their reunion is momentarily interrupted by news of a small electrical fire in the buildings main generator’s utility room; an ominous prelude to the impending disaster. For on the 81st floor a utility box suddenly overheats, creating a spark to ignite some flammable materials nearby. Inside the command center, security guard, Harry Jernigan (O.J. Simpson) takes notice of a tripped sensor indicating a fire has already begun. Curiously, the automated direct prompt to the fire department has not kicked in, creating minor confusion as to whether or not a fire is already in progress.
Meanwhile, PR man, Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) arrives in Duncan’s office to discover Doug and his right-hand man, Will Giddings (Normann Burton) already engaged in a heated debate. Having inspected the wiring in one of the building’s utility rooms, Doug realizes his design specs have not been met. Doug accuses Duncan and his son-in-law, contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) of cutting corners to save money. Unable to reach Roger by telephone, Doug goes to the source instead, cordially greeted by Roger’s wife, Patty (Susan Blakely) who has already begun to suspect she has entered into a bad marriage. Roger and Doug have words. We now return to the tower, introduced to Lisolette Muir (Jennifer Jones) finishing a painting lesson with two young protégées; Phillip (Mike Lookinland – a.k.a. TV’s Bobby Brady) and Angela Allbright (Carlena Gower) who, along with their deaf mother (Carol McEvoy) will prove a pivotal plot point later on. Lisolette is attending the inaugural gala in the glass tower that evening, her date, Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire), a benign con artist unable to bring himself to be devious in the face of true love; particularly after Lisolette reveals she has known all along his truer intentions.
The opening act of The Towering Inferno is incredibly adept at introducing us to all these lives and scenarios. From here, we move into the movie’s main oeuvre – the fire; trapping Dan Bigalow in a clandestine last minute romantic rendezvous with his secretary, Lorrie (Susan Flannery); the couple unaware the flames are fast consuming the outer offices that surround them. Unable to call out for help, Dan makes a daring – if ill-fated – decision to attempt an escape and rescue. He is consumed by the flames as Lorrie helplessly looks on; a blast of fresh air forcing Lorrie to her death through a shattered window. With Chief Mike O'Hallorhan’s (Steve McQueen) arrival, the situation takes on a grimmer immediacy. The people in the tower are going to die unless something is done – and fast. O’Hallorhan orders Duncan to move his gala downstairs. Regrettably, it is already too late, the fire lapping into the nearby elevator shafts and killing a car-full of guests in their evacuation; one ill-fated soul managing to return the car full of burning corpses to the Promenade Room before collapsing in a fiery heap and shell-shocking the rest of the guests.
Meanwhile, Lisolette has made it to the 81st floor, desperate to save Phillip, Angela and their mother. Witnessed on the security monitor, Jernigan makes his way, along with Doug to the Allbright’s suite, discovering the fire perilously close and fast approaching. Jernigan and an unconscious Mrs. Allbright are separated from Lisolette, Doug and the children, who make their way up a tight stairwell back to the Promenade Room, only to realize the safety doors are blocked by a toppled wheelbarrow of dried cement. Doug climbs through the ductwork and air ventilation shafts; eventually making his way to the other side. Two firemen arrive on the scene and detonate explosives to pry the door open, thereby reuniting Lisolette with Harlee. Too bad a gas explosion several floors beneath them bars any plans for a stout-hearted escape from whence they came. As the main generator fails, power to the Promenade Room is cut off. Doug rigs the scenic elevator with a gravity pull. It can now carry twelve guests to ground level; Doug placing Lisolette, the children, Mrs. Ramsey, Susan and Patty in its car with a trained fireman. Regrettably, as the elevator begins its slow descend, the building’s core is rocked by a series of explosions. The scenic elevator is dislocated from its track, hanging on by a single cable and causing Lisolette to fall through its shattered glass to her death.
O’Hallorhan telephones Doug in the tower to suggest two desperate rescue plans; first, a breeches buoy from the Promenade Room to the top of the nearby, though much shorter, Peerless Building. Senator Parker (Robert Vaughn), the city’s Mayor (Jack Collins) and Duncan all do their part to secure the rigging for this endeavor. But as the fire begins to creep into the ballroom chaos and greed grip the menfolk, prompted by Roger to mutiny. Roger climbs into the buoy, kicking Senator Parker and some of the other men to their deaths before an explosion severs his lifeline. In a last ditch effort to save the remaining guests, O’Hallorhan is air-lifted to the roof of the tower in a protective suit, joined by Doug in the building’s overhead storehouse. O’Hallorhan shows Doug how to plant explosive charges along the roof, meant to blow the million gallon water tanks overhead and thus flood the Promenade Room, hopefully to extinguish the fire.
In the epic deluge that follows, the Mayor is washed away and Carlos (Gregory Sierra), an ever-loyal bartender, is crushed beneath a piece of weighty collapsed sculpture. Harlee, Duncan, Doug and O’Hallorhan survive; Harlee made to endure the loss of his beloved Lisolette; given her cat, rescued earlier by Jernigan. Duncan comforts Patty after she has seen what is left of Roger’s body. Doug is comforted by Susan as O’Hallorhan makes a prophetic statement about the future of fire safety, suggesting no good can come of architectural design until architects collaborate with those who understand firsthand the perils of fire. Doug agrees, vowing to be in touch with O’Hallorhan. Although never pointedly established, this finale also hints Doug has scrapped his plans to retire. He will continue his architectural work, thus allowing Susan to pursue her dreams as a senior editor.
The Towering Inferno remains the granddaddy of all disaster epics. Few since have veered very far – if, at all – from its formulaic narrative structure, in retrospect, something of a cliché; using ‘star’ personalities to intertwine fictional lives, further complicated by the introduction of an external tragedy, man-made or natural. Irwin Allen cleverly preys upon a fundamental fear. Even under today’s highly critical and jaundice-eyed scrutiny, The Towering Inferno holds up amazingly, both for its full-scale and miniaturized special effects and for its storytelling prowess. We pause a moment herein to doff our caps to screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant; his script, void of maudlin accoutrements and sentimentality. Silliphant’s concision, also his ability to introduce and distinguish each character memorably, before focusing on their collective self-preservation has become something of a template in the disaster/drama subgenre.
There is also the cast to consider: Irwin Allen cribbing from the best in the business and working in a time when it was still possible to glean expertise from golden-age stars, instinctually in touch with their craft. Real talent never dies. It merely ages like wine; in most cases, of a very fine and rare vintage. The Towering Inferno immensely benefits from these presences; particularly, William Holden, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen; each, a very tough act to follow. There are no comparable stars to these aforementioned three in American cinema today, partly due to the industry’s shift away from nurturing any actor with a life-long career of opportunities; also, because today’s talent is not molded under the rigors and study of a system designed with their best interests at heart. But of course, the real star in The Towering Inferno is the fire – credibly ignited using various techniques, including the simplest – incinerating a set designed and treated with slow burning, though highly flammable materials, made even more palpably frightening by some highly skilled stunt work set before the engaging special effects. Virtually all exteriors of the monolithic glass tower were meticulously crafted models, made in various sizes. Interiors were an amalgam of location shooting in downtown San Francisco and second unit sound stage recreations on the Fox backlot.
Remarkably, William J. Creber’s production design has not dated all that much, perhaps because the basic structural design of most contemporary skyscrapers has remained the same. The same cannot be said of Ward Preston’s art direction, a curious amalgam of then contemporary seventies chic meets the rather out-of-touch turn of the century Victorian accoutrements borrowed from the sets of Hello Dolly!, nor Paul Zastupnevich’s costuming with its penchant for flouncy men’s dress shirts and red or brown velvet tuxedoes. Nevertheless, all of these excesses lend an air of nostalgia to this rather enjoyably – if slightly goony – time capsule, with Faye Dunaway’s risqué beige silk ball gown (basically two strips of fabric running vertically from her neck to her waistline and exposing a considerable amount of flesh between her breasts) keeping pace with the exotic green Versace silk chiffon number, Jennifer Lopez would wear in the year 2000 to the 42nd Grammy Awards. Did one style influence the other? Hmmm. Does it matter…except to illustrate Dunaway – not Lopez – as the real trend-setter?
The Towering Inferno remains a must see movie, not only from its time, but arguably, for all time. Allen encouraged Silliphant to come down hard on the then prevailing standards of an outdated building code; also, to be highly critical of the moral ethics that allow contractors to quietly cut corners instead of floors on their costs. Last, but certainly not least of all, The Towering Inferno is noteworthy for one of composer, John Williams’ memorable early scores, including the Oscar-winning ‘We May Never Love Like This Again’ sung by Maureen McGovern. Although McGovern had a sizeable hit with ‘The Morning After’ (the anthem from The Poseidon Adventure), in the film only a few bars were sung by a rather listless Carol Lynley. In The Towering Inferno, both McGovern and the song are prominently featured as part of the evening’s entertainment just prior to the outbreak of fire. In the final analysis, and quite unlike the fictionally doomed glass tower, Irwin Allen built his Towering Inferno to withstand changing times and tastes. It remains an A-list entertainment likely to resonate with audiences for many more years yet to come.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its deluxe DVD from 2000. The sumptuousness of 70’s DeLuxe color has been reproduced with impressive clarity and virtually no untoward digital tinkering. Flesh tones are accurately rendered. This 1080p transfer really shows off the meticulous high key lighting in Fred J. Koenekamp’s 70mm cinematography. The image is so crisp and free of age-related artifacts it belies the age of its source material. Likewise, the original 3-channel Westrex stereo has been given an aggressively appointed 5.1 Dolby Tru-HD lossless update. With slight and understandable limitations in its vintage fidelity, this new sound mix brings to life the SFX and John Williams’ pulse-pounding score. Extras have all been ported over from the lavishly appointed 2-disc Cinema Classics Collector’s Edition DVD and include a comprehensive audio commentary that fills up virtually all of the 170 min. run time with insightful background stories illustrated by F.X. Feeney and special effects director, Mike Venzina, also, stunt coordinator, Branko Racki.
A retrospective looks at the film and brief bio on Irwin Allen follow, accompanied by shorts dedicated to the stunts and special effects. There’s also a truncated AMC original documentary: Backstory – The Towering Inferno, plus a litany of extended scenes, outtakes and alternates. The original theatrical trailer is also included. Slightly disappointing: while Fox produced a beautiful collector’s packaging for the DVD, complete with a reprint of the original premiere booklet and several lobby cards, virtually none of these have made their way to the Blu-ray packaging. What we have here is bare bones. Parting thoughts: The Towering Inferno is an exceptional testament to the showmanship of Irwin Allen. Just don’t expect to get a good night’s sleep after you’ve seen it – particularly if you live in a high rise. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)