Movie Review – The Towering Inferno (1974)

During the early 1970s era of “shake and bake” disaster films, one of the biggest and best was 1974’s The Towering Inferno.

Set in San Francisco, California, The Towering Inferno tells a story of the opening of the world’s tallest building, and a party that celebrates its completion.  Faulty wiring causes a fire to start halfway up the building, and it’s not long before the party guests discover that they’re trapped at the top of the glass tower.  As the flames continue to grow and climb their way up the skyscraper, the people are forced to deal with the threat as they try every way possible to escape from the deadly fire.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - movie poster

The Towering Inferno (1974) – movie poster

Directed by John Guillermin and with music by John Williams, The Towering Inferno stars Hollywood legends Steve McQueen as a battalion chief for the fire department, and Paul Newman as the architect of the skyscraper.  Supporting them are a group of familiar actors and actresses including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner.  Also in The Towering Inferno is O.J. Simpson in one of his first acting roles.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno begins with Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) returning to San Francisco for the dedication ceremony for the Glass Tower, the world’s largest building, a building that he designed himself.  The Glass Tower is owned and was built by James Duncan (William Holden), a wealthy person who is looking forward to showing off the prestigious building to the top members of society.  He insists that Roberts be there later that evening for the dedication ceremony.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

When engineers test the building’s electrical system, a serious fault is noticed inside of a control panel.  Roberts examines it and discovers that the builders used a cheaper form of wiring, something far inferior to his specification.  The true extent of the bad wiring isn’t known, but Roberts takes it as a sign that the builders probably cut other corners when constructing the building.  What the engineers don’t realize is that a second small fire has broken out on the same floor of the building, a fire also caused by faulty wiring.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Doug Roberts visits the home of Roger Simmons (Richard Chamerlain), the building’s electrical engineers, and confronts him about the cheap wiring.  Simmons happens to be James Duncan’s son-in-law, and he isn’t concerned at all about the wiring.  After all, by going with cheaper wiring, he was able to save the construction project money and receive some kickbacks as well.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Evening arrives and some of San Francisco’s top members of society arrive for the Glass Tower’s celebration party.  Distinguished guests include Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire), U.S. Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn), and San Francisco Mayor Robert “Bob” Ramsay (Jack Collins).  When the guests arrive, the building’s public relations officer Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) orders all of the building’s lights to be illuminated, showing off the new building in a spectacular display of light and power.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The party gets underway with 294 guests in the Promenade Room on the building’s 135th floor.  What the guests don’t realize is that the small fire on the 81st floor has slowly grown in size.  Smoke from the fire is finally spotted on the surveillance system, and chief security officer Harry Jernigan (O.J. Simpson) orders that the San Francisco fire department be notified of the situation.  The fire engines roll out of the station as Jernigan and an engineer investigate the fire.  They open the door and are shocked to discover that the fire is much larger than originally thought.

Roberts quickly makes a phone call and alerts Duncan to the fire burning on the 81st floor.  Duncan thinks that the guests are safe on the 135th floor, and that the fire cannot possibly reach them.  He refuses to follow Roberts’ recommendation of evacuating the party guests to a safer location beneath the fire.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The fire department arrives on scene and 5th Battalion Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) assesses the situation.  He quickly calls in another alarm as the fire spreads further into the building.  After personally taking a look at the fire, O’Halloran visits the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and orders Duncan to begin evacuating the guests.  Duncan is hesitant, but he follows O’Halloran’s orders.  The party guests are quickly ushered to the express elevators.  It’s a slow process as small groups of people use the elevators to descend to the ground.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Before the evacuation is announced, Duncan confronts Roger Simmons about the cheaper wiring.  Simmons freely admits that he used the cheaper wiring as a means of saving money.  He reminds Duncan that he (Duncan) also cut corners as the building’s construction costs went well beyond the budget.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s not long before Duncan has to stop people from using the express elevators.  He informs the guests that the elevators’ doors are activated by fires, and there’s a danger of the elevator stopping on the floor with the fire.  Several guests disregard Duncan’s warning and force themselves into the express elevator.  Sure enough, the elevator stops on the 81st floor and the fire kills everybody in the elevator.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno is now a full-fledged disaster film as the fire spreads throughout the building and over two hundred people are trapped near the top floor.  As the fire grows in size and continues to climb higher in the Glass Tower, the guests become more frenzied as they search for any way to escape.  A rescue helicopter tries to land on the roof, but two hysterical women run to it and cause it to crash.  The scenic elevator is used to help people escape, but it becomes damaged and a helicopter has to lower it to the street.  Finally a line is stretched between the Promenade Room and a neighboring building, and guests are able to escape one at a time while riding on a special rescue basket.  That system fails when some men (including Roger Simmons and Senator Parker) selfishly rush onto it and accidentally cause the ropes to break, sending all of them falling to their death.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Just as the situation seems hopeless, the fire department creates a radical plan for stopping the fire.  They want to use explosives to rip open the ceiling and allow for a million-gallon water reservoir to dump its contents into the building, extinguishing the flames.  O’Halloran and Roberts set up the explosives while the remaining men (all of the women had either been evacuated or killed) in the Promenade Room secure themselves to sturdy structures.  The explosives detonate and a flood of water rushes through the building, killing some people but also extinguishing the fire as well.

After the flames are extinguished, the survivors make their way to the street where they learn the fate of their family and friends.

The Towering Inferno (1974) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno (1974) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The Towering Inferno ends with O’Halloran telling Roberts to consult with the fire department before building another skyscraper.  Roberts agrees with that advice.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 1974’s The Towering Inferno a good movie?

Absolutely!

The Towering Inferno is a fantastic disaster film along with being a really good movie as well.  This movie has it all from a great cast to a believable scenario to a perilous situation.  As the flames go higher and higher, so does the suspense and the tension.

One of the best things about The Towering Inferno is its simplicity.  There’s no end of the world scenario here, nor is there a disaster involving a vehicle or a mastermind terrorist.  Here you have a bunch of people partying near the top of a skyscraper while a ferocious fire (caused by faulty wiring) burns beneath them.  That’s really it.  The film still deals with individual storylines involving some of the characters, but that’s kept to a minimum as the fire grows in size and slowly consumes the building.

As you can probably guess, The Towering Inferno is one of my favorite disaster films from the 1970s.  This is clearly a high-quality film from the story to the special effects to the acting to the film’s score (remember that this is a John Williams product, so expect excellence with the music).

The Towering Inferno (1974) – movie trailer

Fans of disaster films and good movies in general will enjoy The Towering Inferno.  Don’t let this film’s age fool you, or the fact that you probably won’t recognize most of the actors or actresses here.  This movie is definitely worth your time!

four stars

Chief O’Hallorhan – “You know, we were lucky tonight. Body count’s less than 200. You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.”
Doug Roberts – [looks up at the smoky building] “Okay. I’m asking.”
Chief O’Hallorhan – “You know where to reach me. So long, architect.”

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