Movie Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)
People often talk about the worst best picture Oscar winners of all time—I’m often one of them—but rarely do we get a discussion of the worst No. 1 box office movies of the year. The former indicts the Academy, the latter all of us. It’s so much more fun pointing fingers.
But if we were going to have such a discussion, the list would surely include the following:
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Spider-Man 3 (2007)
- The Grinch (2000)
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
And this one.
On some level, this one feels more unforgiveable, since the No. 1 movies surrounding it chronologically are still regarded as, you know, pretty fucking good: “The Godfather” in 1972, “Exorcist” in ’73, “Jaws” in ’75. We still watch those, own those, discuss those. “The Towering Inferno”? Part of that Irwin-Allen-produced, All-Star Cast, disaster flick era, with “Airport” (No. 2 in 1970) “The Poseidon Adventure” (No. 2 in 1972), “Earthquake” (No. 4 in 1974), and “The Swarm” (died at the box office). And you say it was No. 1 in’74?* Whaddaya know.
(* Box Office Mojo now lists “Blazing Saddles” as the No. 1 movie of 1974, but that’s only because the money it earned during a 2013 re-release. For decades, “Inferno” was No. 1.)
As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t see any of these disaster flicks. Maybe I caught bits when they showed up on “edited-for-television” TV, but I don’t think I sat through any of them. Particularly “Towering Inferno.” Planes and upside-down boats were one thing, but fire? The Fire Safety Program in 5th grade made me terrified of it. “Inferno” was the last thing I wanted to see.
Forty years later, though, I was curious. Just how bad was it?
When an “All-Star Cast” meant something
Pretty bad. It’s a soap opera. It’s like what “Love Boat” would become: different people come on board with their own little micro-dramas, then disaster strikes. Here it’s fire, there Gavin MacLeod’s smile.
As All-Star casts go, this one is pretty tight. The key is to mix old-timers and up-and-comers with current stars. Every decade after the silents is represented:
- 1930s: Fred Astaire, loose and athletic at 75.
- 1940s: Jennifer Jones, looking shellacked by plastic surgery; it’s her last film.
- 1950s: William Holden as the movie’s developer-villain, but apparently the nicest guy on the set.
- 1960s: Our headliners: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway.
- 1970s: dishy newbie Susan Blakely and everyone’s favorite football player O.J. Simpson.
We also get TV stars of the ’60s (Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain), along with one from the ’70s: Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland, acting in scenes with Newman and Dunaway. Well, “acting.”
The micro-dramas: Newman is the architect of “the world’s tallest building” in L.A., but he’s ready to go off in the desert, or some such, disappointing the developer, Holden, as well as his paramour, Dunaway, who’s just been offered a managing editor gig that she can’t turn down. Except almost immediately after some afternoon delight with Faye, Newman has to track down wires in the building that are short-circuiting because his specs weren’t followed. The culprits? Holden, cutting corners, and Holden’s ne’er-do-well son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain, who’s married to Susan Blakely.
Meanwhile, Astaire plays a con artist with a heart of gold who is trying to bilk Jennifer Jones out of her money; Robert Wagner is some exec who’s sleeping with his secretary, Susan Flanner. A deaf woman with two kids and a cat also live in the building.
The kids are saved by Newman, the woman and the cat by O.J., our football hero. Wagner and Flannery are the first to die, post-coital. There’s almost a sadism to these scenes, a lingering over their pain and deaths. The lesson is clear: Don’t sleep with your secretary, kids, even in the ’70s when that shit was totally cool.
The one who doesn’t have a micro-drama attached to him? Who isn’t part of the soap? Steve McQueen, playing the fire chief. He’s also the best thing in the movie. By far. He’s the man doing his job and looking after his men. He’s no-nonsense. It’s shocking how good he is. Even Newman comes off as a cardboard figure in comparison.
Who lives who dies who tells your story
The story goes like you expect it to. There’s a party on the top floor, the developer ignores the warnings until it’s too late. Eventually a breeches buoy is strung between buildings to rescue the women. A scenic elevator gets caught in the flames and dangles by a cable. Plenty of flaming people fall from the building.
Mostly you wonder who will live and who will die. Chamberlain will buy it, of course, as well as the other villains: the developer, the politician (Vaughn), and Jennifer Jones (too old?). The only death that made me upset was when Gregory Sierra, playing Carlos the bartender, is killed off it at the 11th hour. I actually screamed “Noooooo!” out loud. Chano, we hardly knew ye.
The dialogue is awful, the romantic dialogue worse (Newman: “I'm not a cheeseburger”/ Dunaway: “No, you're way better: all protein, no bread.”). The day is saved when the water tanks on top are blown and smother the fire for 50 floors. It works so well, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before everyone started dying.
Throughout, the lesson is a ’70s one: Watch out for greedy bastards. But at the very end, back on the ground, McQueen the fireman blames Newman the architect, who seems to accept responsibility:
McQueen: 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.
Newman: [pause] Okay, I’m asking.
Wait, so Newman designed the building poorly? Then why did we all cheer when Richard Chamberlain bought it? The further in we get, the less he sounds like an architect. Back on the ground, he dismisses the record-breaking monument he designed like a typical '70s cynic:
I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.
He had no idea.