Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Films of 1974: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno (1974) is the towering accomplishment of the 1970s cinema of disaster. 

This Irwin Allen film was directed by John Guillermin (King Kong [1976]), nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, and it took home awards for best cinematography, best editing, and even best song . 

As one might expect from a list of kudos like that, The Towering Inferno is dazzling in terms of visual presentation, and more than that, the film is highly suspenseful. Some scenes, especially those involving the fate of Robert Wagner’s character, are also harrowing, and quite frightening. The fire effects are, for the most part, legitimately terrifying too.  

Yet The Towering Inferno holds up best today -- more than forty years later -- due to its carefully constructed social commentary.                                          

I noted in my review of Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) last week how that disaster film transmitted a specific philosophy: a brand of muscular Christianity that states, essentially, God helps those who help themselves. Gene Hackman’s character, the reverend, was a spiritual leader, rallying the ship’s survivors to survive one crisis after the other.

The Towering Inferno doesn’t present a spiritual story-line to go with its chaotic tale of an out-of-control fire, but instead transmits a strong message about one very real pitfall of unfettered capitalism.  

Essentially, the film suggests that if the contest for a business is between turning a profit, or insuring the safety of its customers….the bottom line is going to win out, and people aren’t.

As we discover early in the film, shortcuts have been taken on the fiery building’s electrical wiring by a morally bankrupt subcontractor, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain). 

Simmons wasn’t exactly acting alone, either. Jim Duncan (William Holden), the head of the construction company, was going perilously over-budget on the project, and needed Simmons to save two-million dollars...somewhere.

Well, Simmons found the place where he could save that money. And in the end, though two million dollars were saved, at least before the disaster, roughly two-hundred people also lost their lives because of his actions.

This idea of a high-rise building being a dangerous fiasco or scam, essentially (especially considering the company’s abundantly ironic motto: “we build for life,”) is dynamically reflected in one of the film’s intimate subplots or "B" stories. 

A con-man named Claiborne (Best Supporting Actor nominee Fred Astaire), attempts to bilk a party-goer, doomed Lisolette (Jennifer Jones) out of her money. He too values money more than he does people.

Even the very structure underlining the film's character conflicts -- with corporate big-wigs like Duncan and Simmons on one side, and heroic, municipal firefighters like O'Halloran on the other -- adds to the leitmotif about the pitfalls of avarice and greed. A businessman is a person out to line his or her pockets. A municipal fire worker, by comparison, is someone who has dedicated his or her life to helping others.

There's clearly a conflict between those goals, and The Towering Inferno diagrams those conflicts beautifully.

Because it includes this social commentary about our society, The Towering Inferno isn’t mere escapism or disaster porn, as it has been accused of being by some critics.

Instead, this film from Irwin Allen proves a riveting and suspenseful experience that warns its audience that in their rush to make money, some people will cut corners…at the expense of the rest of us.

“We have an equipment problem.”

On the day of a gala party celebrating its opening, the architect behind the 138 story (and 135 floor…) Glass Tower, Doug Roberts flies into San Francisco by helicopter.  

He is greeted at the tower by his romantic partner, Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway), who informs him that she wants to stay in the city and take an important new media job rather than leave the city with Doug.

Following this meeting, Doug is alarmed to  learn that safety-back-ups are not yet installed in the building, and there are indications of a fire somewhere in the skyscraper. He discovers that some wiring is too hot, and realizes that the electrical sub-contractor, Simmons (Chamberlain), did not follow specs. Instead, he used cheap wiring with no conduit covers.

Doug is worried the situation could escalate to a full-fledged disaster, but the construction company’s boss, Jim Duncan (William Holden) refuses to cancel the impending party, in part because a Senator (Robert Vaughn) and the Mayor are slated to attend.

Soon, a fuse box blows out on Floor 81, and starts a raging, ever-growing fire.  This conflagration begins to burn out of control, and Doug calls the S.F. Fire Department after a co-worker, Geddings (Norman Burton) dies from burns. 

Fireman Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) arrives on the scene with a team of dedicated fire-men, but he informs Doug that if the fire is above the seventh floor, there is no good way for his men to combat it.

The fire is on the 81st floor..and moving up.

This situation goes from bad to worse as the fire spreads, killing the passengers on an express elevator, and endangering all the party goers on the top floor, in the Promenade Room.

“I want both, and I can’t have both, can I?”

I noted above that The Towering Inferno -- based on the books The Tower and The Glass Inferno -- is actually a social critique of unregulated capitalism. 

A construction company in bed with political elites (the aforementioned senator and mayor) has cut corners to make its budget and get the construction permits that it needs. 

The budget is ultimately satisfied, but human decency is not.  

This leviathan of a skyscraper may be beautiful to look at, but is demonstrably unsafe. 

Built for life,” in this case, means built for a day. The building does not survive its inaugural celebration.

Simmons is the obvious bad guy here. He installs wiring without conduit covers, and as a result, the wires get too hot. They overheat. They start a fire.

It’s easy to blame Simmons for the entire crisis since he was the hands-on fellow who changed Doug’s specs. 

But there is plenty of responsibility to go around, as Simmons points out. Duncan, of course, wanted to save money, and that became his most urgent concern.  Even if he didn’t specifically tell Simmons to authorize faulty wiring, he created the environment wherein Simmons felt it was permissible to do so. 

 In The Towering Inferno’s climax, Duncan is contrite because he knows fully the role he played in the deaths of 200 people. “All I can do now is pray to God I can stop this from happening again,” he notes.

For some, that may be too little too late.

Similarly, Doug bears some responsibility too. True, he absolutely designed a building he believed would be safe. But Doug never ran his ideas past by an expert who might know something about skyscrapers, fires, and safety issues; a man like O’Halloran. 

O’Halloran calls him out in the film over this particular oversight, noting that Doug is fully aware that buildings as tall as the Glass Tower can’t be protected from fire, and yet Doug keeps designing such buildings.  

At movie’s end, Doug sees the error of his ways, and says that the ruined building ought to be left standing as a “shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

This was, actually, a building erected on the shaky foundations of bullshit. It had better marketing --- built for life? -- than it did actual safety precautions. It is a reminder of what happens when greed is made more important than human lives.

Poor old Mr. Claiborne is not a bad person, but he too lives by scamming money from people. He pretends to be rich, but can’t even afford taxi fare, as we see in the film’s first act.  He place a greater value on money than on people, and when he loses poor Lisolette, he sees the error of his ways.  He has lost a person he loves, and nothing can make that loss better for him. It was a person, not a “mark” in a con game that ultimately matters most to him. Claiborne's punishment is that he shall be left alone -- with only Lisolette's cat, Elke -- when he could have had the companionship and love of a dear woman.

The film's leitmotif about runaway capitalism and avarice is even mirrored, to some degree, in Susan’s story.  She’s been waiting for five years to get a promotion to story editor at her job, and now the opportunity lands in her lap. She expresses her desire, openly, to have it all, both her job and the man she loves. “I want both, and I can’t have both,” she complains. We can see here the seeds of conspicuous consumption, and the idea that we can have everything we want, when we want it, all the time.

The party-goers in the Promenade are not exactly sterling characters, either, for the most part. 

They panic, they push, and they sow disorder through their ill-considered actions. We want them to survive, but cannot escape the notion, either, that they are in danger in the first place because of their wealth (their money, again), and their power. 

Again, and again, these rich people put themselves first. Two women run onto the roof, for instance, for a rescue helicopter, even though Doug warns them not to go. These women interfere, and the copter crashes and burns. People die because they didn't obey the rules.  Just as Duncan and Simmons didn't obey the rules.

At another point, the party-goers flood the express elevator, even though they have been told not to do so; that the express elevator is dangerous.  They are killed.

The message here seems to be that these people want everything, right now, and nothing -- not even safety concerns -- is going to stop them from getting what they want.

But just try negotiating with a fire...

And of course, attempting to restore order in this chaotic situation we find heroic O’Halloran. He is not a fire-fighter for the money, the power, or the prestige. He is a municipal worker: a civic worker reporting to a public hierarchy.  

And even though the powerful don’t listen to him, O'Halloran rushes in to rescue them when they are endangered. They could not care less about his life, but he puts his neck on the line again and again for the civilians at risk.  

At the end of the movie, O'Halloran has been through the wringer, and yet one feels he would do it again in a heart-beat.  In one great shot, O'Halloran takes in the scene on the ground floor.  He scans the wreckage. His men are in body bags. Their equipment is strewn across the floor.  

This is the cost of staying on a budget; of making a profit  At least for O'Halloran.

O'Halloran serves as the living, breathing mirror of those he saves. He’s not interested in money or power. He’s interested in putting safety, not profit, first.  

By contrast, Doug is the character in the film who starts on one side (that of the corporate interests), and changes allegiances as the truth about the building is revealed.  In the end, he is left humbled by this experience, and will not make the same mistake again.  The film’s closing lines involve his desire to seek out O’Halloran the next time that he designs a building. 

He knows where to find him. That's where he's been all along.

The Towering Inferno's tragedy of greed is played out against an amazing and spectacular cinematic background.  

One scene that remains awesome and terrifying involves Robert Wagner’s character, Don Bigelow.  He dons a wet towel, and runs out into a room on fire, convinced he can safely reach an exit.  

He is consumed in fire in seconds. It devours him.

It goes without saying that this horrifying moment is not faked with digital special effects. A stunt man accomplished this run, and it was edited for maximum impact in slow-motion photography so the terror is extended. The moment is stunning and horrifying, and impossible to look away from. It captures the beauty and destructive power of fire in visceral terms.

Other scenes will cause your belly to drop, or flop. 

Late in the film, one nail-biting rescue attempt involves sending a lone person in a chair across a dangling line connecting two buildings  Although some of the process work has aged a bit -- the rear projection, specifically -- this moment still looks great in high-definition. A poor soul sits in that chair (belted in), and is moves slowly in mid-air between burning building and distant sanctuary.

I would not want to take that ride.

Before the film is done, we also see water tanks explode and flood the fire -- buffeting the survivors in the Promenade Room -- and a scenic elevator come off its track and dangle dangerously 110 floors from terra firma

These moments are executed with an eye towards maximum suspense and realism.

What surprised me, watching the film today, is that every minute seems genuinely suspenseful, rather than histrionic, and I actually cared about what happens to the characters, especially those played by Newman, McQueen, Dunaway, Astaire, and Jones. 

They don’t all make it out alive.

I felt very enthusiastic on my re-watch of The Poseidon Adventure last week, and assumed that The Towering Inferno might not compare favorably. The Poseidon Adventure was short, to the point, and right on target with its commentary about mankind making his own way in the world.

On the contrary, however, The Towering Inferno may just be the zenith of the seventies disaster format.  

The actors are not just good, but fully engaged, the danger is palpable, the threat is not merely pervasive, but in a way, beautiful, and there’s an undercurrent of social critique underlining all the action. The story means something, in the final analysis.

And that’s how you made blockbusters in the mid-1970s.


  1. Two different studios pursue two different burning building films. Instead of going their own way, they work together and combine the two into one. Never see the like of that anymore. Today the two studios would not work together, and would try to get their film to the public first (dueling volcano movies, dueling asteroid movies, etc).

  2. Although Irwin Allen made a lot of schlock tv in the 60s, he was the best at 70s disaster movies. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were the best of the genre. Earthquake and Airport '75, by comparison, were cheesy and laughable.