Hell in a High-Rise: The Towering Inferno (1974)

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The 70s was THE golden decade for catastrophe movies. Some of the best ones were made back then. Think of Airport, The Poseidon AdventureEarthquake and, of course, The Towering Inferno. It’s on this one, release in 1974, that we will concentrate today.

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The Towering Inferno was produced by Irwin Allen, known as the “Master of Disaster” (also produced The Poseidon Adventure), and directed by John Guillermin. Note: Irwin Allen directed the action scenes. The film, written by Stirling Silliphant, was a fusion of two books: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.

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Irwin Allen

The interesting thing is, before Irwin Allen at Fox had time to buy the rights of The Tower, Warner Bros. had already done so. Allen then got interested by The Glass Inferno and bought the rights. But instead of producing two movies that will obviously be very similar and be in competition, Fox and Warner decided to make a team and fused the two books together in one movie that became The Towering Inferno. It was the first collaboration between two major studios.

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The Towering Inferno was obviously a big budget film, with its ton of special effects and, most of all, its all-star cast: Paul Newman, Steven McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, O.J Simpson, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, etc. A real Hollywood dream. The film cost around $14 000 000 to produce (around $68 000 000 today) and was a big commercial success, winning around $140 000 000 at the world box office on it’ release ($678 000 000 today). Being one of the most entertaining movies of all times, and with such a cast, the success was assured.

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The impressive cast

However, the critical reception was more mitigated. It generally was good, but was mostly criticized by builders for some inaccuracies.

Despite that, The Towering Inferno won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Fred J. Koenekamp, Joseph F. Biroc), Best Film Editing (Harold F. Kress, Carl Kress) and Best Original Song for “We May Never Love Like this Again” (Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn). It was nominated for Best Picture (Irwin Allen), Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire), Best Production Design (William J. Creber, Ward Preston, and Raphael Bretton), Best Original Score (John Williams) and Best Sound Mixing (Theodore Soderberg and Herman Lewis).

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Ok, I’m talking a lot about this film’s production and reception, but it’s because there’s a lot to say. But before I’ll go further with my own appreciation of The Towering Inferno, let me resume the movie briefly for those who haven’t seen it.

Like most catastrophe movies, it’s pretty easy to explain: A new glass high-rise has just been built in San Francisco. It’s the tallest building in the world. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) is back in town for its inauguration. Once arrived, he meets the builder James Duncan (William Holden). However, on the same day of the inauguration, a short-circuit produced at the 81 floor causes a fire. Roberts accuses Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), the electrical engineer, of being responsible. The ceremony takes place on the 135th floor, the last one. All those people will have to be evacuated before the fire kills them all. They will be helped by the courageous Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen), SFFD 5th Battalion Chief, and his team of firemen.

As you can see, it’s highly stressful.

What I found very interesting about the narrative lines of this film is how the spectator (us) sees the fire breaks before any character of the movies. Paul Newman & Co are looking for it in the building, but we know where it is before them and we see it growing. The suspense is perfectly established and the tension is more and more intense as the time passes.

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The Towering Inferno is a movie I love, it’s a movie that worked well but, it’s not either a “masterpiece”. It has its faults. So, before talking all good about it, we will start by getting rid of these little imperfections.

First, sometimes, it’s too much. Well, I’m particularly thinking of this scene when [SPOILER] Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner), the Public Relations Officer, and his secretary, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) are caught in the fire and eventually die. It is somehow too dramatic, with the big music, the slow motion, Lorrie who becomes crazy, etc. It somehow becomes funny. I’m sorry, but I didn’t cry in this scene. [End of spoilers]

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It contains some catastrophe movies clichés. One of the best examples is, [spoiler] the cute couple who is separated by death. [end of spoiler]

And, something that I always found strange is why they didn’t show us reactions from people from the outside? I mean, this building is obviously in a popular neighbourhood of San Francisco, there’s obviously people walking in the streets. And when you see a building on fire, your first reaction is normally to stop and wonder what’s happening. The movie is mainly concentrated on the victims and the firemen, but I think it would have been interesting if we would have seen reaction shots of the simple witnesses.

But let’s stop this here because there’s also many good things to say about The Towering Inferno.

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First, the cast. The cast is spectacular. In my opinion (and that’s just my opinion)… Ok, I was about to say ” the best performances were given by…” and then I realized I was about to name almost everybody. However, I can’t say I’ve been impressed by Richard Chamberlain (maybe because his character annoys me too much. I know it’s not a good reason), Robert Wagner or Susan Flannery. They were not bad and I know some can think they were great, but just not my favourites.

I can no talk about all the actors and all the performances, but let me give you an overview of my favourites.

Teaming Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, two of the most popular stars in the 70s, wasn’t a small thing. Initially, Ernest Borgnine was supposed to play the fireman and Steve McQueen was supposed to play the architect. He, however, preferred the other role and was cast as the fireman. Paul Newman was then cast as the architect. Things went fair for the two actors as they were both given the same exact number of lines and both received top billings. On the set, it was a friendly competition. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen are two actors that have a similar acting touch. They act with no pretension and are convincing by reminding simple. I’m more familiar with Paul Newman, but, in this film, I can’t say if I prefer Paul or Steve. They were both brilliant. I have to say I love this moment at the beginning when Paul Newman is introduced to us in the helicopter with his 70s style sunglasses. Such a badass!

Faye Dunaway was known as a difficult actress and often arrived late on the set (which highly annoyed William Holden), but despite that, she could only add good to this film as she had talent. Of course, her Susan Franklin is not as good as her Bonnie Parker or her Diana Christensen, but her performance remains one of the bests in the film. And Faye has always been a personal favourite of mine.

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William Holden. Ah, William Holden! Well, I have to say that he is the main reason why I decided to watch The Towering Inferno for the first time (he is my second favourite actor after all)! Bill, even if he was getting older, had not lost his irresistible smile and his beautiful blue eyes. It might not be his most memorable performance, but I can’t help loving him as I love him in all his films. As I often said, William Holden was an actor full of sensibility and (subtlety). He never overacts and is always so hypnotizing. There’s this moment when he does a typical William Holden reaction and that’s perfect: toward the end, after he has spoken to Paul Newman, we can see he’s feeling guilty of what is happening. He has sad eyes and, I don’t know if you ever noticed that, but Bill sometimes does this little move with his chin and his mouth just like if he was trying not to cry. Breaks my heart!! 😥

Susan Blakely as Patty Simmons (Roger Simmons’s wife and James Duncan’s daughter) is an actress I had never heard of before. But hey, she’s cool! She is very touching and I think she inspires wisdom. At least, in this film. An intriguing and beautiful lady!

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I will wrap up this actors section with Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones. It’s not surprising that Fred was nominated for Best Supporting actor. He is awesome! We are not only amazed by the way he acts, but also by the way he moves! We can see he was a professional dancer 😉 At 75, he still had an incredible posture. And Jennifer Jones, she is lovely as ever and also had an incredible energy. Unfortunately, it was her last film (not because she died, but because she simply decided to retire from acting in Hollywood). The two actors have a contagious chemistry and I think they made the best team of the film. I love when they dance together! (even if it lasts about 20 seconds…)

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Bonus: I’ve always liked the character of Mark Powers, the fireman played by Ernie F. Orsatti. He is the young, cute fireman with not a lot of experience. He is scared at the beginning, but finds courage and becomes a hero. I also love Carlos, the barman played by Gregory Sierra. He probably is the most sympathetic character of them all.

Something I find priceless about the actors are some of their reactions. I’ve previously talked about the William Holden’s sad guilty face, but here are some other of my favourites: When Paul Newman speaks on the phone with William Holden and literally lost his temper: “WE’VE GOT A FIRE HERE!”; when William Holden punches Richard Chamberlain in the stomach (I might sound sadic, but this was deserved. #GoBill); when the two firemen, Scott (Felton Perry) and Mark (Ernie F. Orsatti) realize which building is on fire, etc.

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Once again, I’m talking too much about the actors: I love the world of acting 😉

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The Towering Inferno was also brilliant for many of its technical aspects. The special effects are incredibly impressive. You might not know this, but real fire was used in the filming. So, the cast and crew basically put themselves in danger to produce this film. It was an audacious thing to do and it worked successfully.

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For its cinematography and its editing, The Towering Inferno also was at the top. Surely, what we remember the most from the cinematography is how the building on fire was filmed, but one scene that particularly caught my attention is when the first twelve selected women (including Jennifer Jones and Faye Dunaway) are in the glass elevator. The clear-obscure light is very beautiful, but also very strange. It inspires a moment of calm before the tempest.

We also have impressive aerial views of San Francisco at the beginning of the film. The city and its area are seen from Paul Newman’s helicopter’s point of view.

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It’s hard to imagine how The Towering Inferno was filmed. Around 50 sets were used (most of them were burned for the cause of the film). But the job was done and that’s why Irwin Allen was the Master of Disaster.

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And I bet it was not only a difficult movie to produce for its action and its special effects, but also for having to deal with all those top stars (no pressure…).

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In the 70s, John Williams was starting to build himself a name as one of the most brilliant composers of Hollywood’s new generation. His score for Jaws is probably his most well-known one from the 70s, but his score for The Towering Inferno is unforgettable too. With those aerial shots I was talking about, it makes the movie starts in a very dynamic way. It’s an epic score that fits perfectly the atmosphere of the film or any catastrophe movie. It’s the sound of panic on a hot nightmare. No wonder why he received an Oscar nomination. He lost to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Were also nominated this year Jerry Goldsmith for Chinatown, Alex North for Shanks and Richard Rodney Bennett for Murder On the Orient Express. Ok, the competition was hard, and that’s one of these moments when you’d like to give the award to everybody.

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Even if The Towering Inferno is a dramatic movie, it contains some moments of humour. Those are rare, very rare, but are highly appreciated. The first one I think about is when Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) arrives in James Ducan’s office. Duncan is here with Roberts and engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton). Dan is all happy and proud to show them the giant scissors to cut the ribbon at the inauguration of the glass tower. But when he shows them the scissors, nobody reacts, everybody seems concerned and somehow depress to what he says: “What happened? Somebody hang a wallpaper upside down?” This really makes me laugh. Then they tell him a fire might be burning in the building…

There’s also this very sympathetic scene when Harry Jernigan (O.J Simpson), the Chief Security Officer, save Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones)’s cat from the flames.

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There’s so much to say about The Towering Inferno! And if you’re still curious to know more about it, I highly recommend you to watch this very interesting mini-documentary on its making. Just for Paul Newman’s bloopers, it’s worthy! Here is part 1 of 2 (you’ll find the other one easily):

The Towering Inferno was not only one the best catastrophe movies ever made, but also a majestic tribute to firemen. It’s a movie that makes you realize how this is a hard and courageous profession.

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So, if you’re in for 2h30 of pure thrill and entertainment, The Towering Inferno is for you. I assure you, you won’t be bored a minute and will admire every moment of it for everything I’ve previously said in this article.

Well, what are you waiting for?! 🙂

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11 thoughts on “Hell in a High-Rise: The Towering Inferno (1974)

  1. Fabulous article Ginnie. I totally agree that’s it’s hugely entertaining. It’s just a shame about the presence of O.J and maybe Bob Wagner. That spoils it for me slightly.

    Like

  2. I guess I have to check it out now! That’s really interesting about Warner Bros. and Fox working together on this one. And I didn’t realize Jennifer Jones was in this, too! You’ve definitely piqued my interest, Virginie!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whoa Whoa Whoa- BILL HOLDEN IS IN IT? NOW I HAVE TO SEE IT- What a GREAT WAY to see a 70s disaster flick. Because you know, You have to see every Bill Holden movie !!!!!!! THANKS GINNIE!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Epic post! I love the The Towering Inferno, for me it’s the pinnacle of the 70’s disaster craze. A legitimately entertaining and well acted picture that still holds up over 40 years after its release.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Virginie! Another good one!! I’m glad I saw it when it first came out on the big screen. I think it would lose some of is effect on the smaller screen. I forgot they combined 2 books to make the film.– thanks for the backround info as usual!!

    Liked by 1 person

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