The Towering Inferno

Bottom Line: Starting up, you’re praising the fun and beauty. By the end, you’re praising that it’s over.

Directed by: John Guillermin
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden
Also Starring: Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Sheila Matthews, Susan Blakely, Susan Flannery

A dialogue excerpt from The Social Network (2010):
Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake): “Did you know this is where they filmed The Towering Inferno?”
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg): “That’s comforting.”

I’ve never been one to immediately associate length with boredom. At age ten, I sat through and thoroughly loved all four hours of Gone with the Wind. And it’s not just with movies: at age thirteen, I plowed through all eleven-hundred-some pages of Stephen King’s The Stand (the “complete and uncut” edition). It’s not really a bragging right that length doesn’t bother me, in and of itself. The Towering Inferno is a prime example of such. The film is lushly directed, and humanly acted enough to take the quotidian storyline to remarkably convincing peaks. But when the characters we’re given are trivial and poorly written, it’s difficult to say such a film deserves to run two hours, forty-four minutes. By comparative standards, it runs eleven minutes shorter than The Godfather, but it feels that much longer.

Inferno is an undeniable precursor to big-budget action movies. While its own budget isn’t offensively large (less than $65 million when adjusted for inflation), the mindset is similar to that of Roland Emmerich’s. Scratch that, as Emmerich’s is a huge deterioration. His Day After Tomorrow (2004) uses the common “don’t anger Mother Nature or she’ll raise hell” motif as a shallow excuse to throw in a wide, unimpressive array of special effects; to compare the two would be a massive insult to The Towering Inferno. The tale was seen on a ship two years earlier, in The Poseidon Adventure. It’s not a coincidence that Irwin “The Master of Disaster” Allen produces both. And as disaster movies, each respective work professes in its own right. For Adventure, that’s with the mere idea of having fun, no matter how implausible it gets. For Inferno, that’s assessing a certain unpredictable realism. If only the film kept my mind awake so I could recall how it ended.

The story is simple. An architect has built the Glass Tower in San Francisco and is celebrating its completion. At 138 stories(!), it is the tallest building in the world (at that time), and not one speck of it lacks magnificence. But acrophobia is much less a problem here than pyrophobia. On a lower floor of the crowded skyscraper, a fire has begun due to short circuiting wires. Little do the building’s inhabitants know that floors below them, a fire is beginning to work its way up to engulfing them all in flames. With all phones cut off, there is no medium for communication among anyone but themselves. I could spit excessively about how well the cast, a potpourri of just about every 1970s face from Faye Dunaway to Steve McQueen, builds upon this simplistic plot, an enhanced tale of the 1912 Titanic shipwreck shot sky high. And it’s true, but it’d just be that: spitting excessively. No meaning at all. The characters are melded in a similar fashion. So many characters are thrown out and left unexplained, it’s like trying to read an uneven crossover between Les Misérables and War and Peace. Seemingly, the only actual back stories appear within Steve McQueen (the firefighter) and Paul Newman (the architect). We’re supposed to remember every subtle detail given about every human that has been trapped. Our need to process each one is a distracting affair. And although the artifice is marvelous starting up, this is just why it ultimately falls apart.



3 thoughts on “The Towering Inferno

  1. I really enjoy this film. It’s nothing life changing but it is really entertaining. Both a critical and box office success, it was the second biggest hit of 1974 (Blazing Saddles was #1) and it earned 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.

    • I was very entertained in the beginning, but my enjoyment kind of fell apart by the end. Maybe it was because I was constantly hearing my mother’s nostalgic comments, which spoiled half the film for me. (She LOVES Robert Wagner.)

  2. Yes, it’s long. The story would work if the editing was better. The stellar cast was somewhat wasted, with legends there just because they are legends, and not because they add much else. Newman and McQueen carry the movie. I can forgive the dated special effects. I do own this movie, but I think I have only watched it once. I generally agree with the points you raise.

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