Genre: Drama and Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
Release Date: December 16th, 1974 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: John Guillermin Actors: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Susan Blakely
oug Roberts (Paul Newman) flies in the company helicopter to the Duncan Enterprises flagship skyscraper (nicknamed “the glass tower”) in San Francisco, where he’s anxious to finish up a few final details before departing for good from the promising construction firm. He’s the lead designer and engineer, but it’s time for him to enjoy his financial successes in the peacefulness of the wilderness – along with his girlfriend, Susan (Faye Dunaway), who waits for him in one of the premium penthouse apartments on the upper floors. The colossal building itself is a beauty – a marvel of architectural expertise and artistry. And that night, a lavish gala is scheduled, complete with a red carpet, celebrity guests, a mayoral dedication ceremony, live song performances, and plenty of other showy festivities (held up on the 135th floor).
“We have an equipment problem …” When security officer Harry Jernigan (O.J. Simpson) notices a fire warning in the main utility room, which for some unknown reason failed to automatically alert the fire department, Doug is informed and grows quite consternated. Not all of the safety equipment has been installed, but that didn’t stop the planning of the building’s grand opening celebration. And Roberts suspects that the top boss’ son-in-law’s corner-cutting purchasing habits and kickback-based contract-writing had something to do with the faulty wiring that could have caused a disastrous fire. If only they can get through the big event that evening, perhaps they’ll be able to straighten out the safety issues in the coming days.
Of course, as the title promises, the landmark skyscraper will soon become a towering inferno. In the tradition of producer Irwin Allen’s previous disaster epic, “The Poseidon Adventure,” an all-star cast heads up the harrowing survival tale. But here, the cameos and supporting roles are on overdrive; recognizable names populate a seemingly endless list. William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, and more frequent the social gatherings (followed by the chaotic horror). But with this many stars bustling about, the individual, personal dramas are also orchestrated to be significant, overloading the picture with details about eventual victims (stretching the running time to a whopping 165 minutes).
Normally, the attention to character development would create greater emotional connections when the raging fire – initiating all the way up on the 81st floor – begins to take its toll, but the sheer number of players here is exhausting. Backstories for people such as fraudulent stock market investor Claiborne (Astaire) and his date (Jones) are simply unnecessary – as is the involvement of the characters themselves. So many introductions (and two sex scenes!) crowd the first act that it takes nearly 45 minutes before fire battalion chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen, who gets top billing) finally makes an appearance.
Fortunately, after the first hour, the uncontrollable blaze takes center stage, arranging for numerous action sequences, cinematic deaths, and appropriate panic. But even then, more bit-part details arise (as well as casual observations about all sorts of things), such as with an employee and his secret affair with his secretary – though this segues into one of the more exhilarating tragedies, boasting some exceptional stunts involving flailing figures engulfed in flames. And there’s even time to save a cat, for single-line personas to complain about the lack of fire drill practices, for an amateur firefighter to lose his cool, for two children to snack on ice cream sundaes, and for the unnamed mayor and his wife to fret over their daughter.
Since “The Towering Inferno” was filmed before extensive computer-based special effects were available, the use of real stunts and real fires lends to a staggering visual design with stellar cinematography to match. And with the magnitude and complexity of the disaster, complete with hundreds of extras and oodles of destruction, the logistics are similarly impressive. Additionally, as several separated groups attempt to journey up or down to avoid the expanding combustion (literally and figuratively), suspenseful hiccups are fashioned to make their impasses just that much more agonizing. “I just don’t think that all of us are gonna make it.”
Nevertheless, slow spots pepper the midsection, stalling as the fire spreads, occasionally unseen, so that various characters can complain about their unpreparedness, guilt, or blame. Things get more elaborate and scary when top-floor rescue attempts – ranging from a Navy helicopter to a neighboring building zip line to a one-way scenic elevator descent – continue to fail. It’s obvious that “The Towering Inferno” intends to be such a comprehensive high-rise disaster picture that virtually every hair-raising scenario is covered (some of which feel like amusement park rides, others of which embrace the extreme desperation formerly kept in check), making similarly-themed disaster epics redundant. Perhaps the only thing missing is the media frenzy, though a few shots do show reporters and cameramen. But the finale reaches white-knuckle heights, managing to be even more detonative and calamitous than before, ending with monumental spectacle, tearful reunions, and heartbroken realizations of loved ones lost.
– Mike Massie