As I continue my disaster movie kick, something I’ve noticed in my research — meaning, I’m Googling great disaster movies to watch — is that many of the listed “great” disaster films are typically 1990s and on, aside from 1954’s Godzilla. Where are all the 1980s disaster flicks? 1970s? Surely there’s more prior to 1970 as well? But one of the few that stood out as something prior to the 1990s was 1974’s The Towering Inferno starring an ensemble cast of some of the most known names of the latter 20th century in Hollywood, including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and Fred Astaire.
It’s the second-best high-rise (or skyscraper) film I’ve ever seen, only because I can’t put anything over 1988’s Die Hard. And it’s surely up there as one of the best in the disaster genre. At first, I was intimidated about watching the film because it’s nearly 3 hours. That’s a long runtime. But it was worth it and didn’t at all feel its length.
The general premise of the film is that a fancy new skyscraper, The Glass Tower, the world’s tallest building at a staggering 135 floors (the Empire State Building has 102 floors and the World Trade Center had 94, for reference), is having its official ribbon cutting, with a United States Senator, the city mayor, Hollywood stars and other dignitaries coming along (interestingly, the politicians aren’t the jerks of the film or the first to try to “get off the boat” as it were).
Meanwhile, the architect behind the building, Doug (played by Newman) notices something is amiss with the wiring of the building, which was done by the son-in-law to James Duncan (played by Holden), the builder. However, Duncan doesn’t take it seriously. Once the fire starts from the electrical issues, San Francisco Fire Department Chief Michael O’Halloran (played by McQueen) comes to the scene.
Even though this came out prior to 1997’s Titanic, this is basically best summed up as Titanic but with a skyscraper. As mentioned, Duncan doesn’t take Doug’s warnings seriously and even pushes back, still, against O’Halloran’s warnings. Nobody thinks this skyscraper can catch fire, just as nobody thought the Titanic could sink. Hubris is the folly of man, though. And eventually, Duncan even reaches the point in the film much like the captain of the Titanic in that film, where he wants to go down with his creation (although Duncan ends up surviving).
Something I need to emphasize is that this film is from 1974. That is, many years before the creation of computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Heck, we’re still three years away from the groundbreaking miniature modeling and practical special effects of the first Star Wars film. And I have to announce: Nearly half a century later, the effects of The Towering Inferno hold up incredibly well. In fact, it felt like the best magic show where I kept wondering, “How are they doing this?” The fire raging through the building looks realistic. The various moments where people catch fire and die looks realistic, like the above picture. The action set pieces look realistic. The moments where McQueen and/or Newman are moving around the fire looks realistic.
This film looks realistic, folks! I don’t know how they did it.
In fact, the only thing about this film that doesn’t hold up well is that O.J. Simpson is in it as a security guard and even rescues a kitten. Yes, he rescued a kitten.
One thing I kept screaming at the characters, though, was for them to stop opening doors! If I’ve learned anything from 1991’s Backdraft, it’s that you never open a door in a building suspected to be on fire, lest you open a door and are greeted with a billowing fire, as happened multiple times here. Also, folks, you’re not going to outrun fire or be able to run through fire.
Something to remember, too, about fires is that the smoke inhalation often kills people before the fire itself does. There was a lot of smoke in this place! And my continuing criticism in disaster flicks is the lack of urgency. Urgency, folks! For example, when Doug, O.J.’s character, and Will Giddings (played by Norman Burton) go to the 81st floor where the fire originated, WILL GETS BURNED ALIVE RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM AND THEY STILL LACK URGENCY!
Even when O’Halloran and SFFD arrive on scene and begin battling the fire on the 81st floor, they seem so nonchalant about it. Come on!
And did firefighters back then regularly carrying C4 explosives with them, as apparently the firefighters of the SFFD did in this film?
But those minor issues aside, this was a fantastic film. As the film progressed and the crap kept hitting the fan, they kept upping the chaos, with certain characters dying, or crazy action set pieces, like a helicopter rescue of the scenic elevator with 12 people onboard. Or even the climax with the gushing water from the water tanks saving the day and putting out the fire. It all looks great and was action-packed. There was never really a dull moment in this film.
And they even try to put a message into the film by having O’Halloran hammer home the point that architects like Doug and builders like Duncan build these huge high-rises, and not firefighters, but it’s the firefighters who will have to fight them. I will say, skyscrapers seem uniquely difficult and challenging, should a fire break out! I don’t know if they’re made better now, but the World Trade Center fires demonstrated that. Granted, jet fuel-based fire, along with freaking planes, changes the dynamic somewhat, but the difficulty of rescuing people and putting out fires in a skyscraper seem salient nonetheless.
This film was a massive success. On a budget of $14 million (which is big for that time, but would still be small for today, at around $76 million), the film made $116 million, or $663,400,000 today making it the biggest film of 1974. That’s a dang blockbuster! And yet, all the credit for creating the blockbuster goes to Jaws, which didn’t come out until a year later. (To be fair, Jaws made $260 million, domestically, on a $9 million budget.)
The Towering Inferno was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with seven other Oscar nominations, winning three. That’s another parallel to Titanic, as it would take until then for another disaster flick to get a Best Picture nomination, I believe.
I highly, highly recommend this film if you’re looking for some darn cool, old school Hollywood film-making, both in the cool factor of Newman and McQueen, and in the way special effects used to be done.