During the 70’s, the hype and allure for these films was so much greater because movies in general were so much more inaccessible. The multiplex cinemas and wide release distribution approach by studios, so common nowadays were in their infant stages and the VHS market crazed had not caught on, with only a limited amount of titles of average quality available for distribution. So the place to really watch these blockbusters in their full glory was at a grand old movie theater, with large crowds of people eagerly waiting in line, the smell of popcorn and the bombastic sound of Sensurround. It was a true event, hard to equal nowadays even with the best home theater system.
Irwin Allen, the "Master of Disaster” defined this trend in 1972 with The Poseidon Adventure, a film which stunned Hollywood with its smash box office success. For The Towering Inferno in 1974, Allen surpassed Poseidon in length, star cast quality, special effects, awards and box office success. The Towering Inferno became “the mother, the father and the Holy Spirit” of all disaster films. No other film of this genre would ever surpassed the excitement, the spectacle and the scope of The Towering Inferno, until James Cameron’s Titanic took the genre to a different level in 1997.
After the enormous success of The Poseidon Adventure, the expectations for the next Allen blockbuster were so high that 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, preparing two films based on very similar stories made a once in a lifetime decision to combine their resources and together release The Towering Inferno. In addition to the enormous cast of A-List stars, two directors were hired to direct this classic: John Guillermin, directing the dramatic scenes and Allen himself directing the action sequences.
The dedication ceremony at the world's tallest skyscraper turns into a high-rise night of disaster when an electrical flare-up causes a raging fire, trapping the high profile cast of characters on the top floor. Paul Newman stars as the world famous architect Doug Roberts. Steve McQueen as San Francisco’s fire chief. Robert Vaughn as a senator. Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones show up as an aging couple falling in love. William Holden, is the developer. Faye Dunaway, his assistant and Newman’s love interest and Richard Chamberlain plays Holden’s slimy son in-law, an electrical subcontractor for The Glass Tower and the number one culprit for the disaster.
The spectacular party in the ballroom at the very top floor of the tower, with its scenic glass elevators and spectacular views, is where most of the guests, dressed in black tie and party gowns, spend the early part of the evening. Romantic sparks fly, evil shenanigans and some mischief is played to the strains of Maureen McGovern singing the Academy winning song “We May Never Love Like This Again”. Then the real sparks come out and suddenly all hell breaks loose. For the next two hours there’s lots of running up and down the tower, exploding stairwells, secret lovers burning and falling from high windows, exploding helicopters, failed rescue attempts, firemen climbing up and down elevator shafts, exploding scenic elevators, and for the grand finale; exploding water tanks.
Allen’s direction brings spectacular clarity to the fantastic action sequences with its brilliant exposition. His sense of timing and pacing in building suspense is masterful; you never loose track of what’s happening or who’s involved, which is the biggest challenge with these action sequences. The visuals and special effects hold up amazingly well even by today’s standards considering that this was done before CGI. The coordination of stunt work and special effects is spectacular. In fact in most of the action scenes what you see is stunt men really doing their stuff. Their deadly falls are real. The flames are real as well. The film features many highlights; Paul Newman going up and down a blasted-out stairwell to save Jennifer Jones and two kids; the spectacular rescue of a dozen guests trapped in the scenic elevator and the grand finale involving explosives and millions of gallons of water.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the film is on how skillfully woven is the drama with the action sequences. John Guillermin moves things along quickly but effectively never allowing the dialogue scenes to bog down the suspense. Guillermin provides enough character development to engage the audience but always efficiently and to the point. With its length of almost three hours, The Towering Inferno manages to offer quite a bit of suspense with very little excess fat.
John Williams score is exhilarating. A highlight of the film are the first five minutes of the score, while a helicopter hovers over many of San Francisco’s landmarks leading up to a spectacular view of The Glass Tower standing at the heart of the city. The scoring for the film’s climax involving the strategic placements of explosives near some water tanks is probably one of John William’s most accomplished moments as a composer.
The acting is competent enough, but this genre has never provided the platform for Oscar winning performances. Not unless you consider, screaming, looking scared, coughing or dying as the basis for that. Lord only knows why the Academy nominated Fred Astaire for his role as an aging con-man. Not that his performance is bad, it's just not Oscar caliber worthy.
Not everything is letter perfect on this film. On the negative side you have the silly soap opera elements and the cliché stereotypes, though obligatory for this film genre. You also have dated seventies' costumes and hair styles, and a visual palette of bright red and orange color schemes so typical of the seventies, and O.J. Simpson playing a security guard. (Who knew?)
The film also won three Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Song "We May Never Love Like This Again" and it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Fred Astaire, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Sound.
The element of nostalgia contributes to some extent to enjoying this sort of spectacle, but after many repeated viewings and considering it's logistics and accomplishments I would say that The Towering Inferno has a hook factor that makes it more than unique and superior. After 30 years of blazing away The Towering Inferno still works very well.
The Special Edition DVD Release
The first 1999 release of The Towering Inferno, years ago had a disappointing mono sound track and suffered from a lack of extras. The new May 2006 2-Disc Special Edition release packs a considerable punch. This 2 Disc special edition consisting of a spectacular transfer in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on a single-sided, double-layered DVD; and featuring the original film's Dolby Digital 4.0 mix in which John Williams' score comes across the best. Also featured in an alternative track film historian’s FX Feeney comments that include stories about the partnership between Fox and Warner, locations and set design, casting related issues, and the interaction between co-directors John Guillermin and Irwin Allen.
Disc 2 is loaded with a great number of extras: 44 minutes of extended and deleted scenes; an AMC documentary titled Backstory that covers Allen’s prior success with Poseidon Adventure leading to Inferno; 9 featurettes with comments by actors Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, and Susan Flannery and other technicians involved in the production which include: the complications related to filming with fire; examining concept illustrations created for the film; a look at Allen’s career and personal style; and an interesting look at the historical development of skyscrapers. Also included: 2 Original 1974 Featurettes; a teaser featurette created to excite theater owners about Inferno; a 1977 Irwin Allen Interview; 3 trailers including one for The Poseidon Adventure; 3 American Cinematographer Articles; 5 Galleries offering a mix of stills and promotion materials; and 6 Storyboard Comparisons.
American producer and occasional director who became known for his starry, trashy epics. Coming to the movies from a career in publishing and radio, he won an Oscar for the documentary The Sea Around Us, and The Big Circus, the campy Story of Mankind and The Lost World followed.