The Towering Inferno Review
After September 11th, it seemed unlikely that films such as Arlington Road, The Siege and The Towering Inferno would ever be screened again. Surprisingly, the world has rallied against expectations, and less than six months after the Twin Towers tragedy each of these films has been screened on national television, and a string of gung-ho war films have flooded cinemas.
In the case of The Towering Inferno, it would have been unfortunate for the film to have been buried by all the intensity of the September 11th aftermath. The film, arguably the finest of a weak batch of seventies' disaster efforts, won three Oscars and was a massive co-production between the two large studios Warner and Fox. It’s the type of film that most people have caught glimpses of throughout their life, but have yet to sit down and watch the film in its two-and-a-half hour entirety.
The plot is decidedly simple for The Towering Inferno, and yet is superbly stretched out over a long running time, maintaining an assured pace throughout. A newly-erected 138-story skyscraper in the centre of glorious San Francisco is opening for the first time. In preparation, a huge spectacular gala has been planned in a bid to promote the building as the world's tallest. Many celebrities are invited, including the Mayor (Robert Vaughn), however the tower's architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), suspects shoddy electrical work has been used by the contractors at the eleventh hour in a bid to save costs. In a bid to shut the tower down for the sake of further test measures, Doug is prevented by James Duncan (William Holden), the tower's owner, who fears that the disruption might prove disastrous for publicity. It isn't long before a series of major fires occur throughout the building, and the Fire Bridgade, led by Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), are called in to stop potential death to the hundreds of people caught inside.
Because of the large budget associated with the film, in part due to the two major studios involved, The Towering Inferno succeeds by buying success. The heavy cast are packed with major seventies' film and television stars, the effects are realistically produced and the production details, unlike the film's tower in question, haven't spared any expense. Screenwriter Sterling Silliphant actually based the film on two separate novels. The Tower, written by Richard Martin Stern was optioned by Warner Brothers for a good six-figure sum. A couple of months later, the novel The Glass Inferno, written by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson was discovered by disaster movie supremo Irwin Allen and optioned for a sum in the same vicinity as The Tower for 20th Century Fox. Rather than compete against each other, the two studios pooled their resources, paying half of the production costs each; Warner received the distribution rights outside of America, and Fox were given the rights purely for US shores. The Towering Inferno was born.
Because the film has two directors, it's able to give both the plot and action elements equal weighting in the running time. Irwin Allen handles the action sequences with expert Hollywood tension; he doesn't pull any punches in terms of horrific detail, and he has no qualms in killing off major characters whose immortality appears to be secured on-screen. John Guillermin, a mediocre director who was responsible for mostly big-budget failings, handles the dialogue sequences in an average fashion; at times the conversations seem filler, and at times the tension between the characters is first-rate. It doesn't help matters that the script by Silliphant is mostly cardboard in its adaptation of two novels. When watching the film, one cannot help but sense that Irwin Allen and co cannot wait to push the film along so that they can indulge in the action sequences.
Still, the film is perfect late-night or Saturday afternoon entertainment, sparked by a frenetic John Williams score and tremendously vivid cinematography by Joseph Biroc and Fred Koenekamp. Maybe the film maintains its charm because they simply do not make movies like this anymore. CGI effects have replaced tension. Seventies' disaster films aimed to dramatically pit the viewer amidst the insanity of the onscreen action, whilst the retread of disaster films that were released twenty years later served as simulations rather than movies. Nowadays, directors such as Roland Emmerich tend to forget that in order for disaster movies to work, as much time needs to be invested in the characters as the special effects. Granted, the seventies' disaster efforts weren't the most three-dimensional in terms of character structuring, but at least the audience cared about them. Which leads to the perfect casting of Newman and McQueen as the film's two protagonists. Both are heroes, but occupy different sides of the fence. Newman is the architect of the building and McQueen is the firefighter. The two were destined to star in a movie vehicle together, and it nearly happened five years earlier but McQueen refused Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. McQueen was so obsessed with 'sharing' the film with Newman that he insisted that each man be paid the same, have the sane number of dialogue lines in the script, and that each name be staggered on the billing so that it seemed that both were equally top-billed! Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain all add celebrity weight to the cast, and they each give the film a serious framework. Astaire is delightful as loveable con-man Harlee Claiborne, and Chamberlain is deliciously evil as shoddy businessman Roger Simmons.
In terms of the Oscars, many ironies were thrown up by The Towering Inferno. Firstly, it was the first and only film in which Fred Astaire received an Oscar nomination, losing to De Niro for Godfather Part II. Also, The Towering Inferno managed to win three Oscars in total (cinematography, song, film editing) a tally that amazingly beat Chinatown, Lenny and The Conversation in terms of number of awards. No-one could deny the film's fantastic box-office success, and this confirmed that disaster movies were a genre ripe for picking, or indeed flogging to death if viewed from a few years later. By no means perfect, The Towering Inferno is arguably one of the greatest disaster movies ever made, and leads the way amongst a field of many inferior efforts.
Academy Awards 1974
Best Cinematography - Joseph Biroc, Fred Koenekamp
Best Film Editing - Carl Kress, Harold F. Kress
Best Song - "We May Never Love Like This Again" - Joel Hirschhorn, Al Kasha
Academy Award Nominations 1974
Best Supporting Actor - Fred Astaire
Best Art Direction - Raphael Bretton, William J. Creber, Ward Preston
Best Original Score - John Williams
Best Sound - Herman Lewis, Theodore Soderberg
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, unlike the region 1 Fox version that is non-anamorphic, the transfer is very good and offers a fine presentation of the feature film. Always a film that should have been showcased in its full widescreen splendour, The Towering Inferno is given murky colour tones and a slightly dated 1974 aesthetic exterior, but is still a pleasing transfer.
Presented in Dolby Surround, the film would have been better utilised in mono, since dialogue is presented in a low level of volume and is combined with frequent amount of hiss. Surround elements and the musical score are excellent however, and breathe life into a film nearly thirty years old.
Menu: A static menu consisting of promotional images of the film backed with portions of John Williams' score.
Packaging: The usual Warner snapper case, equipped with a different cover artwork than the Region 1 because Warner own the international rights and Fox own the Region 1 rights. Chapter listings are provided on the reverse of the inner snapper casing.
Trailer: The trailer for the film is included, and heavily promotes the film's star quality along with its massive elements of spectacle.
A thoroughly entertaining seventies' disaster movie is given an average barebones release from Warner Brothers. At a cheap price, it's a very worthy purchase, with the only pity being the lack of any commentary or retrospective documentary.