The Towering Inferno: At the height of new-Hollywood, two golden age studios joined hands to create the ultimate film spectacle that remains the crown jewel in Disaster film genre

Though 1970s is considered to be the height of dark, serious auteur-driven cinema, Two old-Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox joined hands to make the big budget spectacle, The Towering Inferno(1974). The spectacular disaster film brought Steve McQueen and Paul Newman together on screen for the first time,  along with an assortment of stars from the old and new age to create a piece of well crafted Hollywood entertainment that is enjoyable even after 46 years.

“It’s as though General Motors and Chrysler combined their respective brainpower and manpower and went Dutch treat on the bill to produce a new model automobile.”

20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros announcing the launch of The Towering Inferno

Ever since its inception, the term ‘Hollywood’ has always been a symbol of glamor and spectacle in popular culture. Though Hollywood (read American cinema) has produced great artists who has enriched world cinema with their serious work, it’s spectacle that it does best and what the rest of the world always look forward to from it. In the golden age of Hollywood, the MGM studios was the chief movie factory that excelled in creating movie spectacles for the consumption of the audience. MGM also boasted the biggest and the most glamorous stars on its payroll and they were as much an ingredient – or even more- as sets, costumes, special effects etc. in the creation of these spectacles, and they made them with the precision, seriousness and regularity of an automobile factory unveiling their latest models. The first all-star cast spectacle was MGM’s The Grand Hotel, which had all the major studio stars like Greta Garbo, The Barrymores, Joan Crawford etc. starring in it. In the post-war American cinema, the chief provider of spectacle were the Biblical epics. Though all the major studios dabbled in this sort of pseudo-religious spectacle, Cecil B. De Mille  was the chief architect of this genre of cinema. The success of his Samson and Delilah (1949) set the trend for increasingly expensive historical dramas set during Ancient Rome/biblical times .As cinema competed with television for audiences in the 50’s, Hollywood hit upon this successful formula of these huge widescreen epics to bring the audience back to the theaters. Their faith was vindicated; as throughout the fifties, films such as Quo VadisThe RobeThe Ten CommandmentsBen-Hur and Spartacus became the highest-grossing films of their respective years during initial release.  But the genre started to wane after several high-profile failures in the 60’s due to some expensive flops – like Cleopatra – and the emergence of a New-Hollywood, committed to making gritty, realistic, contemporary films for a modern audience. But one couldn’t keep spectacles down for long. After all, cinema was invented as a tool for magicians and illusionists and as a primary source of entertainment, and there is nothing that gives a high to an audience than spectacular scenes like Magnificent temples and palaces being destroyed and swarms of people being exterminated.

In the void created by the death of Cecil B. De Mille came Irwin Allen . Allen has been slaving on the sidelines of Hollywood for a long time without getting much credit or respect for his B movies. But he finally hit gold with The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 with an A-list cast headed by recent Oscar winner and New-Hollywood Alumni Gene Hackman. The film was about  a luxury cruise ship that gets overturned in a Tsunami and a small group of survivors who escaped form the disaster.  Suddenly, his disaster films were respectable and a legitimate A-list genre. So for his next film, he decided to go all out and create the biggest spectacle the cinema screens have ever seen. And in an apparent nod to De Mille, he choose to film a modern parable of a famous biblical story – The Tower of Babel, perhaps the only one that De Mille missed out on during his career. The Tower of Babel was briefly glimpsed in John Huston’s dismal film Bible in the Beginning,… Allen’s tower – a mythical 135-floor San Francisco skyscraper- would be located in modern day San Francisco. But unlike the biblical tale, this will be about an inferno that would engulf the tower on the day of its inauguration. A fire that would be caused by greed and carelessness on the part of its builders. Allen got the  biggest stars of the time to appear in the film. The architect  who designed the  building was played by Paul Newman, William Holden played  the  builder who constructed  it and  Richard Chamberlain would play his unscrupulous son-in-law who sabotaged it by his cost-cutting. Faye Dunaway plays Newman’s love interest and Steve McQueen, arguably the biggest star at the time, would play the fire chief who comes to put out the fire. The cast was rounded out by old Hollywood legends Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones along with Robert Wagner, Robert Vaugn, etc. who all play regular movie stereotypes  like the Conman, Senator, Mayor etc…

The film’s story goes something like this:  All the principals – except McQueen – arrive at the building for a big dedication party in the top floor restaurant. Meanwhile, a generator shorts out and a small fire begins in an equipment room. The building has a state-of-the-art central communications and security system, but half the equipment doesn’t work. As engineer Will Giddings, played by Norman Burton, warned Holden earlier in the film: “I told you we shouldn’t have held the party until the safeguards were installed.”. But Holden refuse to heed the warnings and continues to evade them even as fire breaks out and Will Giddings becomes the first casualty of the fire. By the time he comes to his senses- after some tough talk from Fire chief McQueen- and decides to move the party downstairs, it’s too late. The inferno has totally engulfed the building. This sets the stage for the two heroes, Newman and McQueen, to undertake parallel rescue missions on different parts of the building. We get one spectacular set piece after another  where  characters are rescued or sent to their death. The film climaxes with the biggest spectacle of them all: the blowing up of the water tanks above the tower and the water from the tank putting out the fire in the building.

When it comes to these films we know the drill: the characters are given superficial relationships with one another; there are some superficial or downright silly problems that they must work through and the tragedy becomes a catalyst for them to resolve differences and come together, the bad ones are reformed, the really bad ones are sent to their deaths; some really good ones too, to tug at the audiences heartstrings. Obviously, Story , plot or characterization isn’t of much importance in this kind of  a film.  It’s all about the spectacle quotient and the big set pieces and how well they are married to the main narrative of the film. Unlike De Mille , who was catering to a less smarter audience who were willing to buy his “plaster of Paris” temples and palaces being destroyed, Allen was making his epic in the age of the New Hollywood cinema, where the audience was fed on a diet of gritty realism day in and day out. So the film should posses that authenticity and verisimilitude to make them believe in this disaster. And its here that the film delivers. The film represents old-fashioned Hollywood commercial movie making at its finest, where professionals from all departments come together to deliver a solid entertaining  product as opposed to the personal film making that was prevalent at the time, when individualistic artists were aiming to create idiosyncratic works of art.. The production design, cinematography, editing and special effects are top notch. They hold up well even after 45 years. The film won Oscars for cinematography, editing and original song  The film was an enormous undertaking, so big that for the first time, two major studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century-Fox,  became full partners to produce this film at an estimated budget of $14 million. The film used 57 sets on eight of Fox’s largest sound stages. Special mention should be made of the design of the tower, with its Modern, futuristic architecture, it looks like something Howard Roark might have designed. The tower, with its glossy, shiny surfaces bathed in golden color is a kind of metaphor for the film itself: a film that is designed to awe the spectator purely through its surface effects and gloss, and in that regard, the film is an unqualified success.

Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant adapted the screenplay from a pair of novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M.Robinson. He does a great job of balancing the characters, especially the two superstars, giving them each equal footage and stuff to do. The film is built up set piece by set piece: first, the small fire in an equipment room; then Giddings gets burnt; then the death of Wagner and Susan Blakely; Newman’s rescue of Jennifer Jones and the children; McQueen’s rescue of the people trapped in the elevator running in parallel to the evacuation of guests to a nearby skyscraper through a breeches buoy ; breeches buoy being subsequently destroyed in an explosion, killing Chamberlain and then the final explosion of the water tanks; with the tension and stakes getting increased by a notch at every stage. As it happens in these films, some of the dialogue is cheesy: “Is it bad?” “It’s a fire — all fires are bad”. Some good ones: “Why didn’t you cut floors instead of corners “; and some silly characters, like that of  Holden’s Duncan, the tower builder. Holden was bitter throughout the film: for one, he didn’t get top billing – McQueen and Newman got it- and second, he was disappointed with his role; which he should be; it’s an ill conceived role, where he spends most of the time on telephone and behaving rather bizarrely in moments of crisis. You know how the crisis builds in these films: the person(s) responsible deny, deny and deny some more until they can’t deny anymore, as the crisis is now at their door.

With those blue eyes popping out in every frame, Paul Newman’s got to be the second most beautiful thing in the film after the titular tower; Faye Dunaway has to be the third.  Newman was close to 50 when he made this film, but he looked much younger: lean, fit and athletic than any other member of the cast. Newman gets a grand entrance which embodies the flamboyant spirit of the film; a shot that tracks the helicopter carrying  him from the interiors to the skyscraper in the heart of the city of San Francisco. It sets the perfect mood for the rest of the film that intends to awe the viewers into submission with spectacle. Dunaway, following her acclaimed performance in Chinatown, doesn’t have much to do by way of acting here. She epitomizes Hollywood glamour from its golden age, cast here in the mold of a screen goddess like Garbo or  Joan Crawford. Her Gown with a plunging neckline is a special attraction, with critics commenting that the biggest suspense in the picture is when she would fall out of it. And though she does look like one step away from a wardrobe malfunction, she makes a great pair with Newman. Steve McQueen, on the other hand, had started putting on weight by the time he made this film, but gives the best performance or the perfect performance  for this kind of film. As the fire chief, he is calm, cool and collected. His best moment comes in the below scene, when he is told to get to the top of the tower and blow up the tanks. His emotional timing, body language and line delivery is just pitch perfect. Also, as a balancing act to Newman’s grand entrance at the opening of the film, McQueen gets the final shot and the final lines in the film; Words of caution to all future builders as he walks back into his car

“We were lucky today,” McQueen says. “The body count was only 200. One of these days 10,000 people are going to die in one of these firetraps.”

McQueen and Newman each got $1 million and 10 percent of the gross. The film turned out to be the biggest hit of 1974 grossing in excess of 100 million dollars, thus making Newman and McQueen extremely rich; so rich that McQueen retired from movies for a while and didn’t make another film for about 5 years.

At the time of its release, Towering Inferno was dismissed by the major critics as just an empty light and sound show. Though it was honored with ten academy award nominations, including best picture, its reputation remained as that of a  museum piece: spectacular, successful, rubbish. But one has to only check out the films from the  disaster cycle that followed in 90’s and beyond – with films like Independence Day, Daylight, Volcano, Dante’s Peak—  to realize the worth of a film like The Towering Inferno. How well crafted and staged the entire movie is. The film was  a precursor to  blockbuster films  like Jaws – the came out the  very next year- that would change the Hollywood film making model forever – Alas not for the better of cinema. As mentioned before, what Inferno did was nothing new, it was basically the good old-fashioned Hollywood  genre of sound and spectacle reinvigorated by a big budget, state of the art technology and lots of big-name stars. Most regretfully, this strategy would become the future of Hollywood.

6 thoughts on “The Towering Inferno: At the height of new-Hollywood, two golden age studios joined hands to create the ultimate film spectacle that remains the crown jewel in Disaster film genre

  1. Great write up Brother Mank! Watched this many many times practically every time it came on TV. I was already hooked on disaster movies by then but found Towering Inferno compulsively re watchable compared to say Earthquake or The Poseidon Adventure.

    Great cast with Newman and McQueen making a great tag team combo, terrific practical effects and superbly paced given that it’s actually a pretty long movie.

    More than Faye Dunnaway’s “Golden Globes” though, what fired up this hormonal teenager was Susan Blakely clad in nothing but a white shirt in a post coital clinch with Robert Wagner just prior to their fiery deaths. I can tell you, she sparked a raging inferno of a different kind:-)

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  2. “This strategy….would become the future of Hollywood.” That’s something to rejoice over? I’d call this ridiculous, overblown film the beginning of the end of serious Tinseltown movies. “Star Wars” loomed just 2 1/2 years hence………

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    1. I said Alas not for the best. Didn’t you see that. What happened to Hollywood after Jaws and Star Wars was really tragic, because it completely killed of the more personal artistic cinema Yes it’s overblown and kind of silly, but that kind of entertainment also has its charm , all movies need not be serious work of art. We need a healthy mix. The tragedy after star wars was that there was no such healthy mix. Filmmaking was reduced to just making the big blockbuster.

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