The Towering Inferno: An Epic Disaster Thriller

Faye Dunaway and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

The Towering Inferno is nearing 50 years old but the epic star-studded disaster thriller still has audiences on the edge of their seat.

“You know, we were lucky tonight. Body count’s less than 200. You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us…how to build them.” – SFFD Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen).

The film is one of several disaster thrillers in the 1970s. Films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno were opening left and right in the 1970s. This film places the tower as the world’s tallest building of its time at 1,688 feet (515 m) tall and 138 stories. To put things in context, Chicago’s Sears Tower is 1,451 feet and 110 stories. One World Trade Center is currently the tallest in the US/Western Hemisphere at 1,776 feet and 94 stories. I don’t know about you but I’d probably stay away from skyscrapers after seeing this film. As one colleague told me, they were like the Marvel films for their day. I mean, you could probably space out Earthquake and this film but there is no lie detected. Oh yeah, John Williams just happens to be a composer on a few of these disaster thrillers.

Oscar-winning writer Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay expertly combines a pair of novels–The Tower and The Glass Inferno–into one film. Irwin Allen, a producer at 20th Century Fox at the time, wisely thought it best to combine the two books. Otherwise, you’re looking at rival films being set up at two different studios. Combining resources is to the best of everyone’s involvement. And again, you have Irwin Allen at the helm. Fourteen million dollars would turn into some $200 million at the box office. Eight Oscar nominations and three wins (Editing, Cinematography, Song) would follow. There is no way that the film would get a Best Picture nomination today.

The gist of the film is that an electrical short leads to a fire on the 81st floor in a 138-story building. This is while a party is happening in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor. Movie law immediately dictates that this is a recipe for disaster. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) designed the skyscraper for developer James Duncan (William Holden). When Roberts examines the wiring during testing, he assumes that Duncan’s son-in-law, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), is the culprit. There’s all sorts of miscommunication or stubbornness in this film. PR guy Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) has all the lights on the building. Oh yeah, he’s still in an apartment with secretary/girlfriend Lorrie (Susan Flannery) while the building is up in flames.

SFFD Chief Michael O’Halloran comes to their rescue but it’s not an easy job. The SFFD sets up their command a few floors below the fire but it quickly loses control. It’s only after his arrival that the party starts to be partially evacuated when Simmons confesses to cutting corners to save on budget. Scene by scene, the film continually finds another way to raise the stakes. It’s only when the fire department comes up with the idea to blow up the water takes to give people a fighting chance.

One of most stubborn people in the film is easily Duncan. He has an opportunity to evacuate the building on Roberts informing him but does not do so. It would only spell disaster for everyone else because the only useable elevators are the scenic elevator. The stairs are not an option because of smoke in one and and a jammed door in another. By the time they start to evacuate, it’s already way too late.

Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno.
Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Steve McQueen and Paul Newman lead the ensemble cast as a San Francisco skyscraper burns into the night. Their casting and fight for first billing lead to the diagonal credits in the opening titles. The “staggered but equal” billing was the first of its kind and is still in practice today. Per the film’s bonus features, there’s footage that did not make it into the film because of them having fun on set. Newman would also get into it with director John Guillermin on set and still turn in a solid performance. While the film does not necessarily need to be this long, it earns every minute of the almost 3-hour run time.

Everywhere you look, there’s another star. A decade earlier, Holden might have had top billing. Instead, it’s McQueen and Newman getting paid $1 million for their work plus a percentage of the grosses. Surprisingly, McQueen chose to play the chief instead of Roberts. You have two of the biggest stars of their time and they’re surrounded by even more stars. Faye Dunaway is one of the top-billed cast along with Holden. It’s not a showy part but she brings sex appeal to the film.

McQueen and Newman both did their own stunts in the film and suffered injuries in the process. Even during a long take with Robert Wagner’s character–performed by a stunt double–running through a fire, they had to do it in two takes. If you make this film today, studios would probably utilize stunt performers rather than the stars themselves because of the insurance. There are stunt performers in the film but a lot of actors are doing their own stunts in the film. Even for the 1970s, it’s a dangerous position when you’re dealing with both fire and water. Of course, they didn’t have the same protection that you have today with the cables to protect actors.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the film and its awards love is Fred Astaire’s Supporting Actor nomination. Astaire stars as con man Harlee Claiborne. Claiborne is a character that goes against type for the actor because there’s no singing or dancing. Both BAFTA and HFPA gave him the award. He would lose the Oscar to The Godfather Part II‘s Robert De Niro.

Next to the cast, this is a film that lives and dies on the quality of its visual effects. In real life, the tower itself was not 135-plus floors tall. It’s one of those buildings where the VFX department does its job. There are all sorts of effects–fire, miniature, and fire–and they all have to be weaved together. The Academy Awards did not have an official Visual Effects category heading into the 47th edition. They did give a Special Achievement Award to the team behind Earthquake. For me, it would be too close to call.

John Williams earned one of his 50-plus Oscar nominations for the score in the film. It was one of two scores to earn any acclaim in 1974. This score earned nominations by both the Academy Awards and BAFTA while HFPA nominated Earthquake.

Nearly 50 years after its release, The Towering Inferno remains one of the golden standards in the disaster thriller genre. Among the film’s biggest legacies is that building codes would require sprinklers in the event of fires.

DIRECTOR: John Guillermin
SCREENWRITER: Stirling Silliphant
CAST: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner

20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. released The Towering Inferno in theaters on December 16, 1974. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.