On it’s opening night, a 138-storey skyscraper is having a celebratory party on the 135th floor. However, due to corners being cut during production a fire breaks out on floor 81. It is up to the building’s architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) to try to save as many people as possible as the blaze intensifies.
I love a good disaster movie. No idea why, but when you set a group of people in a restricted space and present them with a variety of life-threatening obstacles and situations to struggle through, well you’ve got a film that I’m going to watch, and probably enjoy. The king producer of disaster movies was Irwin Allen, and his heyday was in the 70s, and his most famous examples were The Poseidon Adventure and this, both of which saw an all-star cast stranded in extraordinary situations, with not everyone surviving – and it not always being evident which ones will make it to the final reel. The Poseidon Adventure‘s narrower focus and greater character depth marks it ahead of The Towering Inferno quality-wise, but I still really enjoyed this film, despite it’s fairly sizeable flaws.
For starters, the two leads hated each other. Or rather, Steve McQueen hated Paul Newman, and would refer to him as “Fuckwit”. Nice. McQueen was initially offered the larger role of Roberts but, having had some experience with fire and firefighting in his past, and therefore having a great respect for them work firefighters do, McQueen opted instead of the O’Hallorhan role. The problem was, Roberts had twelve more lines. McQueen knew this because he sat down and counted them. He called up the screenwriter, Sterling Silliphant (awesome name) and demanded the situation be rectified, forcing Silliphant to cancel an upcoming cruise with his wife on pain of being fired, just to fuel McQueen’s ego. And of course there’s then the infamous debacle of the placing of names on the poster. McQueen and Newman couldn’t work out between them whose name should go first, so instead McQueen’s is the first reading left-to-right, but Newman’s is top reading top-down. Pettiness isn’t a strong enough word, especially when you consider that Newman is the true lead of the film, given he has the most connections with the other characters, is involved with more of the driving plot and is in the first and last scenes, with O’Hallorhan not being introduced until 42 minutes into the film. In the few scenes these two share there’s a real absence of chemistry that’s surprising for stars with a history of working well with others, being what could have at times been a fire-fighting buddy movie instead seems to see two men working towards the same goal, but occasionally taking a break to hate one another.
Also, McQueen is pretty terrible throughout. I understand that as the Fire Chief, and as the person if command of the situation, he is required to maintain a businesslike approach to the proceedings, but he plays everything with a complete lack of emotion or urgency. In contrast Newman is a sympathetic, get-stuck-in pragmatic type keen to do whatever it takes but displaying his desperation and concern at the same time. Granted most of McQueen’s scenes are either with fellow firemen or working towards a target, whereas Newman has to help out kids and reassure fellow civilians, but still.
As for the supporting actors, the cast is full of some typical disaster movie stereotypes. There’s the concerned owner James Duncan (William Holden) who was in charge of building the tower, and oversaw some of the cuts, his conniving, dastardly son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain), Roger’s tired-of-him wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Doug’s career-driven girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway), an elderly con-man guest (Fred Astaire) with the woman who’ll melt his heart (Jennifer Jones), helpful security guard Jernigan (O.J. Simpson), a potentially weaselly senator (Robert Vaughn), a high-up tower employee having a secret relationship with his secretary (Robert Wagner & Susan Flannery), the Mayor and his wife (Jack Collins & Sheila Matthews Allen) and a couple of kids (Carlena Gower & Mike Lookinland), separated from their deaf mother (Carol McEvoy). Of the bunch, most of them perform well, doing what is required of their characters as and when, but others felt fairly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Fred Astaire especially added very little to the plot, and if anything posed a fair few questions at to how other characters might know about his own life without him ever having told them. His presence seems to be entirely build around a third-act scene with minimal set-up or pay-off, and how he was the sole actor to earn an Oscar nomination for his work here astounds me.
The kids were surprisingly not annoying, and it was good to see Robert Vaughn in a role that, whilst initially seeming villainous, ultimately isn’t so, but for me the standouts were Holden and Chamberlain. Holden is essentially playing the mayor from Jaws, denying any problems with the building on fire even as the elevators are cut off, and he gets some choice scenes of having to deal with his decisions. Chamberlain on the other hand is a gloriously over the top villain from the moment we see him, and insists on making every dickish move he can possibly make throughout the entire film. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t make it to the credits, and he even manages to make his manner of demise unsatisfying in its selfishness.
Plot-wise I expected the whole plot to be very predictable and, whilst about 70-80% is, some scenes came as a surprise. One in particular sees a couple of characters perish early on, and in a particularly gruesome and drawn out manner. The scene came as something of a shock given the tone of the film up to that point, and sees a man stumbling blindly around a smoke-filled, flame-licked room. He’s a character I completely expected to survive at least 45 minutes longer than he did, and I found the scene to be very sobering. Another character had an even more shocking death, so much so that I wasn’t sure I’d seen the correct person die as it’s a relatively wide shot, and the definitive confirmation didn’t come until the very end of the film, other than the fact that we just never cut back to them again.
Disaster-wise everything made sense to me, and the methods of prevention, saviour and cure all followed a straightforward, natural progression that saw the situation exacerbating for those left up the tower as their various methods of escape became cut off one by one. Only a botched helicopter landing felt forced and unexplained, merely a way of sealing off that potential direction.
If you enjoy the likes of The Poseidon Adventure then chances are you’ll enjoy this too. Yes it’s a little long and overblown, with perhaps too many characters and not enough plot to go around, but in the grand scheme of things I had a great deal of fun.
Choose Film 8/10
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The Towering Inferno is the pinnacle of the 70’s disaster craze. A legitimately entertaining and well acted picture that still holds up over 40 years after its initial release!
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There is an interesting contrast between The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and their respective authority figures, Captain Harrison (Leslie Neilson) and Chief O’Hallorhan (McQueen). In Poseidon, Captain Harrison is advised of an earthquake and tsunami in the Mediterranean and wants to take an alternate route to avoid it, which would have meant a financially costly delay, but an executive of the ship line happens to be aboard and insists on pressing ahead. He pulls rank on the captain, who caves in to his boss’s demands, and, well, you know the rest.
Iin Inferno, Chief O’Hallorhan is also confronted with a clueless superior, the mayor (William Holden). The chief orders the ballroom, where the mayor is enjoying the festivities with other guests, evacuated. The mayor orders the chief to back off and allow the party to continue, but, unlike the captain in Poseidon, the chief will have none of it. He reminds the mayor that where there is a fire, he, the chief, is in charge, outranking even the mayor, and the ballroom is evacuated. If Captain Harrison had showed such backbone, the ship might have been spared along with its hundreds of passengers. Of course, it wouldn’t have been much of a movie, would it?
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