“One these days, they’re going to kill 10,000 in one of these fire traps. And I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies. ’Til somebody asks us how to build em.” Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), The Towering Inferno.
The Seventies was a decade where disaster movies, such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Earthquake (1974), thrilled audiences with dramatic stories and special effects. Recent events in London, however, remind us that such dreadful disasters do happen in real life. The Towering Inferno (1974), the story of a 138 storey building beleaguered with deadly safety issues, has sadly never been more relevant.
The film begins on the evening of the Tower’s grand opening, and everyone involved in the project is in a festive mood. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) initially neglects to listen to his staffs’ misgivings about the safety of the tower before the night’s party (he has other things, namely Faye Dunaway on his mind). Things start to get serious, however, when a faulty circuit breaker is discovered during some last minute tests. This leads Doug to confront the man responsible for the electrics, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) the not-so-nice son in-law of the man in charge, Jim Duncan (William Holden). As the party begins, Doug tries to prevent any further problems with the circuitry, now overloaded by the entire tower being illuminated for the opening. Unbeknownst to everyone, this has caused an electric panel (which some rags and paint thinner were left next to!) in a storage room on the 81st floor to malfunction. The resulting fire spreads deceptively slowly, and many refuse to take it seriously at first. After all, there should be little problem putting out a fire on a single, unoccupied floor? Few people have moved in yet and the only major event going on is the swanky opening party fifty floors above…
Duncan, concerned with saving face, initially puts off telling the 300 VIPs. “I’m not going to concern myself with a fire in a storage room on 81, as it can’t possibly affect us up here. Not in this building.” He tells his panicking architect over the phone (who has just discovered the conflagration and witnessed one of his colleagues (Norman Burton) on fire- the first casualty of the film). Angrily whispered conversations between Duncan and Simmons make the increasingly numerous problems with the tower clear- the specifications for the electrics were downgraded by Simmons to cut costs to the level Duncan required. As the film progresses, more major safety issues with the Tower are revealed, including inadequate sprinkler systems and jammed fire exits. The firefighters don’t find out about some of these overlooked dangers until it is too late.
After a gradual start, The Towering Inferno’s pacing is brilliant. The film does an excellent job of maintaining the tension and suspense over its 2 hours and 30 minutes runtime, switching between different groups of characters as they try to fight their way out of the building. Like any good disaster movie, no character is safe and the spread of the fire is horrifying to watch. The special effects are amazing- ceilings collapse without warning on firemen and staircases crumble in gas explosions. A scale model of the tower is used to show how the fire spreads throughout the film.
The Towering Inferno is populated by an A-list cast (Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire and Robert Wagner, to name a few)- although some of them are given little to do and serve as expensive set decoration while the fire steals the show. Without a doubt, the finest acting in this film is McQueen who gives a fantastic, moving performance as the fire chief pushed beyond his limits. Jennifer Jones, as a resident of the building who goes back to help her deaf neighbour’s family, is also excellent.
The main shortcoming of this film is some of the dialogue. There are occasional bloopers in the conversations, for example in the scene where Newman’s architect phones the building owner to tell him there is a fire. Duncan somehow already knows where the fire is, even though he hasn’t been told yet!
Despite this flaw, The Towering Inferno remains a classic disaster movie, one whose messages about fire safety, building regulations and mass hysteria remain relevant to this day. The gradually mounting panic among the party guests as they rush into the elevators, despite being told not to use them, is a particularly horrifying and memorable scene that ends with tragic consequences. The film also does a brilliant job in portraying the bravery of the firefighters and showing how difficult and harrowing their work can be. In light of the recent Grenfell Tower disaster in London, The Towering Inferno’s messages about building safety remain highly relevant today.