The Towering Inferno (1975)
Directors: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Starring: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden
Release date: January 30 (UK). Please note I have tried to use my inebriated notes where possible. I have of course re-written one or two passages for purposes of, ahem, clarity. May contain inflammable material and spoilers…
What’s that saying: ‘If you pay peanuts you get monkeys’. Jim Duncan (William Holden) has built himself one giant multi-storey macaque of a coffin. Somebody’s been cutting corners with the cost of Duncan Titanica (or whatever it’s called) and it’s kick-backs all round, cheers. Heap Big Chief Culprit is Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) who has been playing fast and cheap with the electrical wiring. “If you had to cut costs, why didn’t you cut floors instead of corners?” In-bloody-deed. Despite much muttering about cables overheating and killing overloads, before you know it the skyscraper is on fire with millions of party-goers, many of them in the Equinox lounge on the 135th Floor, trapped inside and no way to get out. Panic thankfully ensues, but not before somebody calls nine-one-one. ‘Get the Fire Brigade – get the Fire Brigade – before the building starts to really burn – Uh!’ Remember that one? I’ve probably got the lyrics wrong but who cares… Oh, you all know The Towering Inferno, what’s the piddling point of me going on at length about this ‘un, eh? Uh!
I love disaster movies, where utter ludicrosity occurs at every turn (witness in this film, random wheelbarrow full of set concrete tipped over and blocking a door…). Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever grown up in Movieland. I saw Herbie and decided to stay there; like Oskar flat-out refusing to grow up in The Tin Drum – oh, that’s a dreadful parallel and now I’ve got an image of eels squirming around in a horse’s head. Forget I ever mentioned that. Every movie sucks me backwards into the blissfully naive mind of a child. I used to think it was just Star Wars turned me into a kid again but maybe it’s walking into a cinema or pressing ‘play’ on the remote, or soon as I see a production logo. I’m trying to explain but I’m not getting anywhere near it… Every film I watch is Herbie, I think that’s what I’m saying, innit. I did have a destination when I began the paragraph but now me fog lights are on and I’m firing off flares every 20 feet…
Okay, I remember where the first sentence was going; life has a way of turning ludicrosity into a horrifically real event. Watching The Towering Inferno post-9/11, I found some of the joy had leached out of the experience. Eventually, the Schneider Weisse Aventus/ Ardbeg combo helped me to relax; these are actors and this is make-believe and there’s cock socket Simmons exploding – revel in the anarchy.
I’m leathered. I love The Towering Inferno. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. If not love, then at least like. Seeing all those hapless people running around waving their arms in the air and screaming – especially screaming, the running around’s not so important as long as there’s plenty of hysterical screaming. The various character motivations are set up quickly. See, modern films today, you’d get a load of unnecessary background on somebody… say, Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen). But not here, all you need to know is he fights fires – not what he had for breakfast or where his missus gets her hair permed. He’s a fireman and he fights fires. Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) is an architect; he designed the building currently melting around them. He wants to move away, preferably with Susan (Faye Dunaway), but Sue’s got a job offer on the table and for her that means staying put. Duncan is enjoying the kick-backs presented by Simmons and his foolhardy cost cutting… You don’t need any more than what you get; we can crack on with the burning, baby. Actually, I didn’t know this was based on two novels, The Tower and The Glass Inferno. Has anybody read those?
The characters are never secondary to the fire though. While Irwin Allen directs the pandemonium, Robert Guillermin looks after the personal stuff. Harlee Claiborne’s (Fred Astaire) scamming may be slight but he develops a touching bond with a surprisingly forgiving Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones). It matters later on. You’ve got the obligatory kids in peril (plus deaf/mute mom Mrs Allbright for an added bonus)… oh, and a cat in peril too. Don’t worry, puss, OJ Simpson’s on his way! There’s a ton of little character things going on but you never lose track of them amongst the bedlam; you know exactly where they are, what it needs to rescue them and who’s doing the rescuing (if anyone). It’s borderline whether or not I actually care about any of them – somebody like Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner), heroically sticking a jacket over his head and announcing, “I used to run the hundred in ten flat” before setting himself heroically alight after two flat. I can’t really care about a bloke who says: “Will Giddings burned? How?” Erm, gonna stick me neck out here… a fire maybe? I love the flagrant stupidity of head honch Duncan who refuses to see his guests to safety. He’s like Captain Smith deliberately ignoring the iceberg on a collision course with his ship. When informed that the feckin building is on fire: “I think you’re overreacting,” he tells Roberts. Overreacting! He’s obviously not seen the poster art… But when he tries to flirt off O’Hallorhan, the Chief just slaps him down; “It’s your building but it’s our fire, now get out.” Ace.
You’ve always got a chance with O’Hallorhan and Roberts on your side, brave and resourceful, the pair of them. But then it’s McQueen and Newman, what else they gonna be, huh? O’Hallorhan lands a couple of weighty and pertinent observations; “There’s no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the 7th Floor but you just keep buildin’ ‘em as high as you can.” He goes one better near the end and one can’t help but nod in agreement; “One of these days you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these fire traps and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build ‘em.” They’re up against an FX bonanza. Practical FX; there’s no CG fire here. Shit explodes and collapses, flaming stunt people hurtle through windows, plainly wearing burn gloves and grimly holding on to their protective facial masks. The Towering Inferno is chock full of great set-piece action; the exterior scenic glass elevator is pressed into emergency service, it gets struck by debris (poor Fred’s gonna be upset) and they bring in a jelliwopter to hook on with O’Hallorhan, his mate slips and he’s hanging on for grim death while the mangled elevator is gradually lowered to the ground; Roberts climbing amongst the twisted metal of a stairwell to effect the rescue of Mrs Allbright’s kids alongside Mueller… Oh, I’ve just remembered a top exchange with the firemen set to rappel down an elevator shaft:
Rookie fireman: “I can’t make it. I’ll fall. I know I’ll fall.”
O’Hallorhan: “Okay. Then you’d better go first. That way, when you fall you won’t take any of us with you.”
Look, it’s just a superbly executed piece of cinematic mayhem, the type of which Roland Emmerich has been trying to revive for the past 15 years – with varying levels of success. Acting negligible, but they all pitch in playing it commendably straight, ably supported by Fred Koenekamp’s photography and His Majesty John Williams on score. Snappy script, too. The big star of the show is the real fire wrangling, though. My eyes are now conditioned to look for the telltale green screen but, no, the actors are surrounded by smoke and flames, they aren’t poncing about on an empty stage in this one. The best bit, I think, is the moment Roberts makes his way through the fire toward camera in silence. I’m glancing worriedly at the Denon amplifier thinking, ‘crap, I’ve lost me sound…’ but then he opens a door and the roaring blaze pours out of the speakers once more; we were in a room looking through the window at him. Roberts closes the door again and peace returns. Very nice.
So that’s that. The Towering Inferno is epic. If you don’t like it, Blain says you’re a ‘slack-jawed faggot’.
I’m going for an inflammatory 3.5 Fireman Kurts out of 5.
ThereWolf, March 2012