Back in the 1970's the cinema going public was force fed a string of disaster movies that began with the excellent 'The Poseidon Adventure', continued with 'Earthquake' (complete with its floor shaking Sensurround system) and reached its pinnacle with 'The Towering Inferno' which was most probably the biggest film of 1974 in the USA with it being released in January of 1975 in the UK. Winner of three Academy Awards (for best cinematography, editing and song), it is a movie that was often copied and parodied on TV for some time thereafter. The genre went into decline soon afterwards with a whole raft of cheapie 'cash-ins' like 'Flood' which featured star on the wane, Robert Culp.
I remember wanting very badly to see 'The Towering Inferno' in the cinema, but I was still at school, my Dad didn't have a car and the nearest cinema was 7 miles away in Stirling, necessitating a 45 minute bus journey that took you through every one horse town around the foot of the Ochil hills in Scotland. Needless to say, I missed out and until recently only ever saw it in a constraining 4:3 TV version, which detracted significantly from the scale and impact of the picture.
Now, thanks to its release on Blu-ray, we all get the chance to see it in its full Panavision glory - and it's a testament to just what could be achieved by Special Effects back in the days before CGI.
Based on two novels: "The Tower" by Richard Martin Stern, and "The Glass Inferno" by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, the script was woven together by Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant who took seven main figures from each novel and incorporated them into the screenplay, as well as the major climax of each novel: the lifeline rescue to an adjacent rooftop from "The Tower", and the exploding water tanks from "The Glass Inferno".
'The Towering Inferno' was a co-production involving Warner Bros, who owned the rights to 'The Tower' and Irwin Allen of 20th Century Fox, who held the movie rights to 'The Glass Inferno'. By splitting the production costs each studio avoided two similar films competing at the box office and reduced their overall financial risk.
The large budget ($14,000,000) meant that the production could afford two bankable stars, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen (at $1million each plus a percentage of the gross), as well as a supporting cast that read like a Hollywood telephone directory including Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones (in her last picture), Robert Wagner, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and William Holden.
Newman stars as Doug Roberts, the architect of a new 135 floor skyscraper (The Glass Tower) who, despite his reservations about cheapo construction and faulty wiring, finds himself at the mercy of his penny pinching boss James Duncan (William Holden). When a power overload sets a pile of oily rags ablaze and knocks out the sprinkler system, it's only a matter of time before the fire spreads. Unfortunately, the blaze coincides with an opening-night party (doesn't it always?) attended by Roberts' girlfriend Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway), Duncan's daughter Patty (Susan Blakely) and a host of other San Francisco celebrities and socialites. Fire Chief O'Hallorhan (McQueen) is called in to suppress the flames, but they quickly spread to several floors, killing dozens of fire-fighters, building employees and residents. As the situation worsens, Roberts and O'Hallorhan must work together to contain the fires so they decide to explode the water tanks on the roof in the hopes that the deluge will extinguish the fire and save the building's occupants before they are burnt to a crisp.
Will their gamble pay off? Watch it and find out.
Bigger and on a grander scale than any previous disaster movie, 'The Towering Inferno' did well at the box-office too, raking in $116,000,000 in America alone. It may well run for 165 minutes, but it's seldom dull as there's always something spectacular happening to give the customer their full money's worth.
John Guillermin directed the dialogue scenes and generally obtained good performances from the starry cast, especially from Fred Astaire who received an Oscar nomination for his turn as a down-on-his-luck con man with Jennifer Jones as his next potential victim. Producer Irwin Allen (the master of disaster) directed the action scenes, and there are several sequences reminiscent of his previous epic 'The Poseidon Adventure' including rescues from the side of the building and in stairwells that contain only a twisted length of pipe on which to climb. The film's size and scope are impressive, and the action never flags although you sometimes feel that it's trying a bit too hard.
Paul Newman clearly emerges as the star of the whole affair as he features in many of the best action scenes, as well as in a love story with Faye Dunaway. William Holden also has some excellent dramatic moments as the tough businessman whose lack of concern over the fire's imminent threat inevitably leads to everyone's peril. Steve McQueen, as the fire chief, disappears for a while during the mid-section of the film, but returns with two exciting rescue scenes which allow him quality time in the spotlight. Other stars in lesser roles include Robert Vaughn as a publicity seeking senator, O.J. Simpson (still seen as a nice guy then) as a security guard who saves a cat, and Robert Wagner who is the first of the stars to meet an untimely demise.
All in all, 'The Towering Inferno' keeps the audience on the edge of its seat and it pays to remember that this is a movie of epic proportions that aims to deliver a good, three course meal rather than a light snack. It's one that leaves the audience feeling satisfied and breathing a sigh of relief at the end as the tension subsides.
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