Ah, the 1970s.
Shag carpeting, wide lapels, flair pants, peace signs, “Far out!”, “Right on!”, “Groovy!”, Pink Floyd, and… Disaster movies.
With the big success of both Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Hollywood realized there was money to be made in telling stories of great tragedies and the human spirit needed to overcome them. Those first two films, one about a bomb going off on a commercial airliner and the other about a capsized cruise ship, not only did well at the box office, they were also good, if a little cheesy. They established the formula of a star-studded cast (including both rising and falling stars) as characters that were each having their own stories unfold when disaster struck.
It was 1974’s The Towering Inferno that took the disaster movie to new heights. (That’s kind of a pun, because it’s a skyscraper and those are very tall. Although, an airplane flies much higher, so it’s not a great pun. I’m doing the best I can!)
The Towering Inferno was produced through the collaborative effort of two movie studios – 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. – with two directors – John Guillermin and Irwin Allen – and was based on two books – The Tower and The Glass Inferno. The cast was led by two of the day’s biggest movie stars – Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. So many twos! It’s a good thing numerology is nonsense, because this could be freaky.
Each studio held the film rights of one of the two books. The Tower was owned by Warner Bros., while Fox snagged the rights to The Glass Inferno. The books were very similar, so producer Irwin Allen convinced the two studios to make one film together rather than having competing films that might hurt each other at the box office. Allen also wanted to direct the movie, but the studios only allowed him to direct the action sequences, which were pretty good.
The film had a big budget to cover building a highly detailed scale model of the tower and nearly 70 sets (most of which were burned), for the special effects, and to pay the star-studded cast. The two leads were paid one million dollars each. And, in the 1970s, that’s a darn good payday.
The cast included Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones (in her last film role), Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, and Fred Astaire. Astaire would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a down on his luck conman hoping to swindle a nice rich widow (Jones), only instead he falls in love. OJ Simpson, in one of his first major films, has a small, but significant part as the chief of security for the tower. There is also Dabney Coleman in the blink and you’ll miss him role as SFFD Deputy Chief #1.
The production had to deal with some prima donna behavior on the part of the two leads. Each wanted top billing. The studios came up with a unique solution. Both stars’ names would appear together on screen in the opening credits. McQueen’s name would be on the left with Newman’s on the right, but Newman’s would be positioned slightly higher. This compromise worked. McQueen’s name might be read first, but Newman’s was higher, so he had that going for him.
William Holden also wanted top billing. He received third. The two male leads were in their prime and were huge box office draws at the time, while Holden was aging out of the big time roles. He was 56 after all. FIFTY-SIX?! I’m 57! What the hell?! Ahem… Holden also found Dunaway’s frequent tardiness to the set very unprofessional. Fed up, he let her know about it. The story goes that he gave her a stern lecture punctuated with a shove (not cool, Bill!) against the wall. She showed up on time after that.
McQueen was also a bit of a pain. He insisted on doing most of his own stunts, much to the chagrin of Irwin Allen. He insisted he had the same number of lines in the film as his costar, even though he doesn’t show up in the movie until 43 minutes in! I think he was probably the instigator of the “my name goes first” debate, but I’m just speculating.
The film opens with architect Doug Roberts (Newman) helicoptering across San Francisco Bay to his triumphant achievement: the Glass Tower. He beams with pride and excitement as he approaches the tallest building in the world. Roberts is greeted as the returning hero as he enters the tower headquarters by everyone there and especially the tower’s builder James Duncan (Holden).
Oh, and those offices just scream ’70s! So much orange and brown!
After the pleasantries, Roberts needs to head to his office a few floors down and get some rest. And, check it out! There’s a bed in his office! He finds his fiancee Susan Franklin (Dunaway) waiting for him. She’s happy to see him, but is worried that her man wants her to say goodbye to city life. You see, Roberts is done with all this building buildings and fast-paced living thing. He longs for the simple, country life. Her concerns will have to wait. First, they need to exchange…um…pleasantries. Different pleasantries than what he shared with Duncan and the others earlier.
Roberts has returned in time for the big dedication event for the tower. The biggest, brightest, and bestest people will be there. Even Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn) will attend. The best food, best champagne, best entertainment, and the best people. It sure will be a night to remember.
But! Roberts learns that Duncan took some short cuts to keep costs down. The great architect is furious that the builder cut corners instead of cutting floors. It was Duncan’s creepy, “I’m a bad guy” vibes exuding son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) who found creative ways to save money. He did use wiring that was up to code, but, as Roberts reminds Duncan, the code wasn’t made for this tower. Roberts knew the tower was in danger.
You probably guessed that he was right. A fuse box in a supply closet on the 81st floor explodes and sparks a carelessly stored painter’s drop cloth on fire. And that supply closet is ridiculous. It’s filled with cans of spray paint and all kinds of other flammable items. It’s hilariously over the top. There should be a sign on the door calling it the Fire Starts Here Closet. Seriously, it stops just short of Wiley Coyote lighting a match in a shack filled with TNT!
Well, the fire starts and the fun begins.
The fire scenes and explosions are all very impressive, especially for the mid-70s. The action is all well filmed and compelling. Plus the arrival of Fire Chief O’Halloran (McQueen) is very much like the actor: understated, yet totally cool. It may have taken 43 minutes, but when McQueen shows up he is the man in charge.
Late in the film, as O’Halloran realizes what he needs to do to put the fire out, McQueen delivers one of the greatest “Oh, sh#t” moments in film history.
But Newman gets to be the hero, too. There’s a particularly good sequence, in which he helps to rescue the rich widow and two kids, who live in the tower, in a stairwell that had been exploded away. They had to climb down a twisted, dangling handrail. The scene actually had me feeling the tension and fear of falling, when I watched it again recently. Still effective after all these years.
The rest of the movie is filled with great rescues, thrilling escapes, the professionalism of the firefighters, and lots of moments of civilians rising to the challenge. And there are frank moments of human selfishness and panic induced by the encroaching flames. When the plan to put out the fire is put into action it is thrilling, with terrific shots of water crashing the party room.
Both Newman and McQueen are a pleasure to watch. As are Astaire and Jones, the two old-schoolers still had a little of that old Hollywood magic left in them. William Holden could still bring a human touch to his cynical businessman character. Lessons are learned by everyone (well, almost everyone) touched by the disaster. Their problems didn’t seem as big and insurmountable as they did before the fire.
In the end, the Firefighter tells the Architect that they’ll keep bringing bodies out of these firetraps until someday someone asks them how to build them.
“OK. I’m asking.”
“What?! And risk losing this sweet gig? Later, Architect!”
Well, something like that.
Epilogue: There is one other memorable moment in the film.
As the party and fire are getting started, the public relations officer of the tower (Robert Wagner) stays behind in his office to exchange pleasantries with his secretary (Susan Flannery). After the exchange, as the PR man gets ready to join the party, this bit of dialog follows…
PR Man: “You know what astonishes me?”
PR: “You make love with a girl, and afterwards there’s no visible evidence, nothing to mark the event.”
Make love? Girl? Mark the event?
Ah, the 1970s.
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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.