The Towering Inferno

THE TOWERING INFERNO, though the Academy Awards nominated it as such, was not the Best Picture of 1974, a joke next to The Godfather: Part II (which thankfully took the award), Chinatown or several other worthier claimants. It was, however, the mightiest fireball at the box office, grossing $116,000,000 in the States alone, the year’s biggest hit (reissues of Blazing Saddles eventually edged it for #1), with another $87,336,000 internationally.  In ’74, cheesy competition included Earthquake and Airport 1975but this skyscraper scorcher outclassed them for star power, relative intelligence and destruction dazzle. It’s often cited as the best of the ‘disaster’ films, at least of those from its era.

San Francisco is aglow with excitement at the festive dedication of ‘The Glass Tower’, 1,668 feet tall,138 storeys of plush design. A blown fuse starts a fire on the 82nd floor, and a series of blunders turns the celebration into a conflagration. Not everyone in the cast is going to make it out—but billing is crucial.

Stirling Silliphant’s script adapted novels “The Tower” (Richard Martin Stern, 343 pages) and “The Glass Inferno” (Thomas M. Scotia and Frank N. Robinson, 435 pages) into 165 minutes of screen time that took two studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers) and $14,300,000 for producer Irwin Allen to try and top his “Which Stars Will Die?” formula from The Poseidon Adventure. Mercifully, this time out we’re spared having to endure Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and an obnoxious kid. John Guillermin directed, with Allen handling the action sequences.

Beyond the impressive sets, stunts and special effects, this works because the script doesn’t get too soapy with the subplotting (admittedly it’s maybe not as much “fun” seeing a showpiece building burn after the real-life spectacle of 9-11 seared us into wars without end) and the cast is hard to top. They may have felt they were slumming for big paychecks in a sure-fire gig, but the stars deliver like pros, led off by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, seconded by William Holden and Faye Dunaway, with cover-the-bases backing from Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakeley, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones and Robert Vaughan.

Oscars were given for Cinematography, Film Editing and Song (instantly forgettable “We May Never Love Like This Again”) with further nominations pulled for Best Picture, a sympathy nod for Supporting Actor (Astaire), Art Direction (a deserved nomination), Music Score and Sound.

The trapped include Susan Flannery, future murderer O.J. Simpson, Sheila Matthews Allen (Irwin’s wife), Jack Collins, Don Gordon, Gregory Sierra (why kill the affable bartender?), Dabney Coleman, Felton Perry, Ross Elliott, Norm Grabowski, Scott Newman (Paul’s son), John Crawford and unbilled Maureen McGovern, who sings the sappy song that stole the trophy that should have gone to Blazing Saddles. Do you remember the song from The Towering Inferno?

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