Directed by John Guillermin
December 14, 1974
The highest building in the world catches on fire and a desperate struggle ensues to save lives and put out the blaze.
The Towering Inferno is a classic disaster film brought to you by the master of disaster himself-producer Irwin Allen. The man knew how to craft epic disaster films. This film came about during the Golden Age of the Disaster Film during the 1970s. That decade saw such films as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Airport 1975, and this classic.
The Towering Inferno is a combination of two separate books: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. These two books were planned to be turned into films and they eventually came to the attention of Allen who felt they were pretty much the same thing.
Allen convinced executives at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., where a book each was at, to join together and make this film a coproduction with each equally splitting the costs. This was a first among major Hollywood studios. Nothing like this had happened before.
Stirling Silliphant, whose credits included In the Heat of the Night and original The Poseidon Adventure, merged two stories which were described as basically the same into one engaging film packed with action and characters that you actually care about. At least enough that you care about what happens to them. Fred Astaire as the elderly conman that meets a woman and actually changes was especially touching. This film also provided Astaire his only Oscar nomination which I feel is a genuine sin. The nomination was deserved since his performance was good, but the man was a legend and this is it for him.
Aside from Astaire, we have an expansive and talented cast. Their acting is hammy and over the top but that is one of the trademarks of the genre. There are numerous plotlines in this movie that get resolved because one or all characters involved die. Really! It really struck me. We have a nice cross-section of well-known names from the time. If you are familiar with the important television and films from around then there is someone for you to recognize. Aside from Paul Newman and Steve McQueen we have William Holden, Faye Dunaway, eventual miniseries mainstay Richard Chamberlain, a surprisingly non-lethal O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Felton Perry of RoboCop fame, Dabney Coleman, and Gregory Sierra.
This film got a bit of a rip-off in the form of the Dwayne Johnson vehicle Skyscraper about a tall building that catches fire but this time it is overseas. Do not copy the homework too closely there. It is good but not as good as this movie. This movie was a pinnacle of its genre and the last gasp of it in its heyday. Sure they still do them but not as well as here.
There have been many disaster films over the years. Some have been better than others. This one stands out from so many others out there. It has a great script. The then all star cast embraces the material. And the sad moments are often genuinely sad or shocking. And the chief bad guy in this gets his just desserts along with several other scumbags. Who does not like to see that?
I see disaster movies as essentially the ratings grab episode of a TV show. The good ones go for broke and toss in everything including the kitchen sink. Nothing is too over the top and this is no different. How they put out the fire is just one of the better resolutions of the genre and more improbable ideas if done in reality.
The Glass Tower (where our inferno occurs) is a film illusion. The images you see are of something that does not exist and it is hard believe. It looks so good on screen. In a day and age where CGI can pop in anything into the scene, those brief moments still hold up.
Irwin Allen was the legendary mind behind many classic television shows and disaster films. He knew what he was doing as a producer. With works like The Poseidon Adventure and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (film and series), Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants the man left a mark on popular culture. Supposedly the technique of rocking the camera back and forth and on-screen cast rushing from side to side on the set to simulate a vehicle being tossed around is called “Irwin Allen rock-and-roll.”
The Towering Inferno is a classic of the disaster film genre. It has an amazing all-star cast in a great story. Watch it!