The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★

The tallest building in the world, known as The Glass Tower, is erected in San Francisco. The first eighty floors are for businesses while the rest, going beyond one hundred twenty floors, are strictly residential. A prestigious party is planned to take place in one of the highest floors. Hours prior, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), the architect, is informed by technicians about a wiring problem. Although Roberts informs the building’s owner, Jim Duncan (William Holden), of the potential danger, the party is to go ahead as planned anyway. Unbeknownst to anybody, there is already a fire in one of the rooms. The fire detector is faulty.

Directed by John Guillermin, “The Towering Inferno” is a highly entertaining action-thriller that is willing to perform at a various levels of intensity. The fire is so ravenous that not even water, despite being under the control of experienced firemen, can stop it from consuming and spreading. As in most disaster films, the audience is required to get to know several key players with whom we can expect to get hurt really badly or die in the most gruesome ways possible.

There is Susan (Faye Dunaway), torn between accepting a job she had been hoping to get for five years and traveling with Roberts indefinitely, Lisolette (Jennifer Jones), an aging lady who lives with her cat, Harlee (Fred Astaire), a conman who seems to show genuine interest in getting to know Lisollete a bit more, and Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), the fire chief with excellent leadership skills. There are moments when our patience is tested because the way in which the characters are introduced has an air of cheesiness and the dialogue sounds somewhat forced at times.

But when the door of the burning storage room is finally opened, it is like opening Pandora’s box. There is excitement because, for instance, we are forced to wonder how a small fire from several floors below can possibly reach the room where the party is occurring. But the picture is not just about the fire consuming its victims. The screenplay by Stirling Silliphant brings up questions about responsibility and human error.

There is Duncan’s son-in-law, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who knowingly deviated from Roberts’ instructions and substituted inferior wires and other equipments in order to save a couple million dollars. Naturally, choosing to save money for the sake of safety has repercussions when building the highest skyscraper on the planet. There is no doubt that he is responsible but is he the only one?

The picture is a love letter to firefighters, but the writing does not mistake bravery for invincibility, cowardice for a character flaw. There are extended sequences in which we simply observe firefighters doing their jobs. Like the men holding the hose, our attention is on the fire being extinguished. Surprises arrive from many directions which eventually create suspense and thrills. In some scenes, the ceiling collapses on the firemen, but in others, the burning room explodes in their faces. I was left consistently speechless, wide-eyed, and aghast when a logical and theoretically effective plan is rendered useless by unpredictable factors.

“The Towering Inferno,” based on the novels by Richard Martin Stern (“The Tower”), Thomas N. Scortia, and Frank M. Robinson (both for “The Glass Inferno”), plays with our expectations. It makes one think twice about staying in hotels above the seventh floor.

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