Directed By: Ben Guillerman
Written By: Stirling Silliphant (based on the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia)
Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain
The world’s tallest building, the fictional 1,800 ft Glass Tower, is the Titanic of skyscrapers. A lavish masterpiece of design, it’s supposedly indestructible; a strict impossibility that it could be brought down in a blaze. “This is one building that I figured wouldn’t burn” the chief fire fighter tells us, but in an Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen picture, there could be hardly anything more flammable than an un-burnable building. The in-your-face gusto of the title, The Towering Inferno, tells us all there is to know about Allen’s nominated disaster flick. It’s bold and blazon; a riveting but overblown, overlong, nonsensical amusement park of melodrama and explosions.
Directed by John Guillerman and written by Stirling Silliphant, the screenplay fuses two novels into one story, juggling a labyrinth of sappy relationship angles and elaborate action sequences. The trouble begins at a dedication ceremony for the tower, a decadent party populated with high profile politicians and dignitaries. They drink and celebrate high up in the promenade room (the 135th floor) whilst an electrical short on the 81st floor starts a fire which will soon have the whole city in a rabble. Amongst all the chaos is a series of soap opera inflected relationships, a symphony of crises, deception, tragedy and true love.
Each of the key characters swiftly falls into action film archetypes. Steve McQueen is the head of the fire-fighting team, Mike O’Halloran. He thrusts himself with a stoic courage into the inferno, a no-nonsense steely warrior, ticked that big-shots insist on building these fire traps waiting to happen. His unlikely right hand man is the tower’s architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who promptly morphs into John McClane without the guns upon the fire’s ignition, kicking down doors, scaling elevator shafts and planting explosives, all the while thinking of his beautiful fiancée (Faye Dunaway) trapped in the doomed party. The tower’s builder is Jim Duncan (William Holden), who may be harbouring a guilty conscience for the shoddy construction if he didn’t have to keep everything cool in the promenade room, selflessly managing the panic of all the guests. And the villain is Duncan’s oily, unapologetic son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain), the tower’s electrical engineer, also trapped in the lavish party. It’s his reckless cost-cutting which was the true catalyst for the fire, a catastrophe which he meets with an evil crassness and cowardice.
You sense the film wants to be more tragic than it is. It opens with an honourable tribute to the dedicated fire-fighters that risk everything daily, and the personal relationships woven into the chaos point to The Towering Inferno, at least in part, wanting to stir us. If you were feeling generous you could look at the film as an indictment of favouring decadence over integrity, or a commentary on what we’re all truly capable of with just a little cooperation, but any sense of heft is lost in the stencilled characters and the production’s more-brawn-than-brains mentality, which would rather have Paul Newman swing, with a child on his back, from a blown apart stairwell, than represent a true human being.
It’s plain to see, then, the film is far more at home as a lip-smacking spectacle than a stomach-socking drama, but the salient point is this, silly as it is, watching Paul Newman swing with a child on his back from a blown apart stairwell is fun.
What elevates the excitement of The Towering Inferno above other disaster films, like George Seaton’s Airport, is its sense of danger. The fate of a Dean Martin piloted plane was never in doubt, but the blaze in The Glass Tower is unpredictable. Guillerman isn’t gun-shy, his film is tough and unflinching in amassing its equally towering body count. Hackneyed though their characters may be, watching McQueen and Newman hurl themselves with such an audacious bravado into a peril that we feel could actually claim them is thrilling. The Towering Inferno works in spite of its simplicities because we want our heroes to make it. The film endures with a sense of urgency, despite its baggy 170 minute run time, because its action set pieces are made with gusto and adventure, underpinned with just enough self awareness to justify all the lunacy.
It may look for something more, but if it’s not evocative, The Towering Inferno is at least exciting. There’s a scene late in the film where a complacent Roger decides he’ll take his chances with the stairs to escape the promenade room, a plan quickly foiled by a spontaneous explosion.
“Pretty ridiculous spectacle” he quips. At least he got that right.