What a nostalgia trip – the UK’s Film 4 was good enough to show The Towering Inferno (1974) just the other afternoon, and I couldn’t resist sitting down to see how well this Irwin Allen-produced, John Guillermin-directed disaster epic had aged.
The first time I saw it was way back in 1979, when it was first shown on British television, this being when a big TV premiere (and they didn’t come much bigger than this at the time) could rake in nearly 20 million viewers, given the absence of any other media on which to watch films, save down the flicks, of course.
Producer Irvin Allen, the ‘master of disaster’, was unfortunately to be associated with some terrible films later in his career (of which The Swarm (1978)) was the undoubted nadir), but the combination of one of the biggest big-name casts in history (Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner, William Holden, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, the list goes on and on), a solid, well-crafted screenplay from Stirling Silliphant (based on two novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Frank M. Robinson and Thomas N. Scortia) that only occassionally lapses into excess and controlled, suspenseful direction from Guillermin (King Kong (1976)), and it being the first time that two major studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.) had collaborated on a picture, ensured that the first time I watched this, it was one of the most exciting (and talked about in the playground) films I had ever seen.
So, how does it stand up some 33-4 years after my original viewing? Truth be told, rather well. Of course, the cliches of the genre (which, to be fair, were not yet really cliches way back in 1974) stand out a mile – you’ve got developer Jim Duncan (William Holden) who has built the world’s tallest skyscraper, but hasn’t exactly kept too tight a leash on the nefarious business activities of his dishonest, cowardly son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain). You’ve got morally upstanding architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who quickly comes to realise that, while the building may have followed ‘code’, it is nowhere near up to the safety standards of his original specs. And, of course, you’ve got the rugged, tough but heroic fire Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) (‘It’s a fire. All fires are bad…when there’s a fire, I out-rank everyone here’) who is called in to fight an increasingly desperate battle against an inferno that threatens to destroy the building and all the guests at the inauguration party in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor.
But it is still tremendously exciting – unusually for Film 4, the channel showed a slightly trimmed version of the film (well, it did begin at 15h45) that removed some of the running, screaming, falling, burning and dying fun, but there was nevertheless still a sweaty, overpowering sense of all-consuming disaster. The film could almost be said to have had a certain prescience in these post 9/11 times, but the plot is only concerned with the horrors that incompetence and financial chicanery can bring, as opposed to outright malevolence.
There are a few parts that will make you cringe, of course – the doomed love affair between an ageing Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones comes near to the top of the bill on that score – but I defy you, should you choose to pass an afternoon with it, as I did, not to get sucked in – the action sequences (for which Irwin Allen took a special direction credit) and the blaze S/FX are still outstanding, and the film as a whole stands as a tremendously good-fun reminder of when they really made movies big.