The 1970s: Golden Era of the All-Star Cast Disaster Movie
Sure, there was a resurgence in the mid-to-late 90s, but nothing like the craze of the 70s. The 70s even filled out a number of subgenres, including the "Things Going Wrong On Airplanes" subgenre (Airport, Airport 1975, Airport '77), the "Natural Disaster" subgenre (Earthquake), and the "Manmade Structures Gone Wrong" subgenre, which includes The Poseidon Adventure and the film discussed here, The Towering Inferno. Perhaps nobody brought the perils of our favorite stars to the big screen better than Irwin Allen, producer/director of such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm.

The Towering Inferno was based on not one, but two novels: "The Tower," by Richard Martin Stern, and "The Glass Inferno," by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Warner Brothers has bought the rights to "The Tower," and soon after, Irwin Allen bought the rights to "The Glass Inferno" on behalf of 20th Century Fox. The two studios found out that they would be producing essentially two versions of the same movie, and, wanting to avoid having two similarly-themed disaster films in theaters at the same time (Armageddon/Deep Impact, anyone?), they combined forces. Each studio paid half the production cost, and they agreed to split the box office receipts.

"To those who give their lives
so that others might live ---
To the firefighters of the world ---
This picture is gratefully dedicated."
- Dedication from The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno clocks in at 165 minutes, and while there are some slow parts, the action scenes are definitely exciting (keep in mind that this is 1974, pre-ILM). And did I mention the ALL-STAR CAST?

Plot Summary:
Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) returns to San Francisco for the gala opening of his masterpiece skyscraper, the Glass Tower. Doug has everything going for him - a promising career designing skyscrapers for Jim Duncan (William Holden), lovely girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway), and he's planning to move out of the city to a more peaceful life.

However, in Doug's absence, the wrong electrodes have been put into the wiring system. During a system check, a breaker box blows, and we discover that the building is not all that safe - the breaker box sparks a fire, but the alarm system doesn't sense it. Roberts goes to see Duncan's son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain), who had been in charge of the specs for the electrical system. Roger insists that everything he did will meet code, but Doug angrily tells him, "Code's not enough for that building!" Not only are the building plans going awry, but Susan has just broken the news to Doug that she's been offered a major promotion, but this would mean that she'd have to stay in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the throngs begin arriving for the gala, as Doug tries to figure out what's been done to his original plans. The Glass Tower is illuminated, and the guests make their way to the party... on floor 135. Guests at the party include Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn), con man Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role) and the woman he's trying to swindle, Lisolette (Jennifer Jones), as well as cheapskate electrician Roger, his wife Patty, Duncan, and Susan.

Finally, after the fire has been burning on floor 81 for the better part of the day, someone in the security office finally notices it on a surveillance camera and alerts the fire department. Doug arrives on the scene, followed by a building security team headed up by O.J. Simpson (in his pre-Bronco chase days). Despite the fact that a man gets pretty badly burned by the utility room fire, Duncan refuses to evacuate the building because a fire on floor 81 will never get to the top floor.

"Duct holes weren't fire stopped... corridors without fire doors, sprinklers that won't work, and an electrical system that's good for what? Well, it's good for starting fires!" -- Doug Roberts

Enter the fire department, led by Chief Mike O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen). O'Hallorhan doesn't think much of architects - they keep building 'em higher and higher without thinking about fire safety. He goes up to tell Duncan to evacuate the party room - "It's a fire, mister. All fires are bad." Duncan tells the crowd that the party is moving to the lobby because of a small fire, and everyone rushes for the elevators. Down on 81, things get worse, as an explosion blows out a bunch of windows, and the fire starts going up an elevator shaft. With the express elevators now out of service, the crowd begins to panic, and they head towards the scenic elevators that run along the outside of the building.

One of the express elevators that had already been dispatched opens on floor 81; it goes back up to the party room, and a man stumbles out, on fire. He collapses on the floor, dead, and the people at the party realize that they are truly in danger.

The rest of the movie is comprised mostly of action/suspense scenes, as everyone tries to either stay ahead of the fire or get out of the building:

  • Doug, Lisolette, and the two kids (one of whom is Mike Lookinland, Bobby of Brady Bunch fame) have to make their way through a section of stairwell that has exploded;
  • The firefighters have to rappel down an elevator shaft;
  • The fire department sets up a line between the roof of the Tower and the building next to it, allowing people to travel perilously down a ripline in a metal chair over one hundred stories above the street;
  • One of the scenic elevators is blown off track by an explosion, leaving a group of people hanging from the side of the building;
  • The film's climax, in which they blow up the building's water tanks on the top floor as a last ditch effort to extinguish the out-of-control blaze.
  • "You know, one of these days, they'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." -- O'Hallorhan
    "Ok... I'm asking." -- Roberts
    "You know where to reach me. So long, Architect." -- O'Hallorhan

    Yes, there are some incredibly cheesy moments, but this is a decent disaster movie. After all, lots of stuff blows up, and O.J. saves a cat - what's not to like? I would recommend it as a good movie to watch with a large group of people... perhaps with some libations. Take that as you will.

    Selected cast

    Produced by Irwin Allen and Sidney Marshall
    Directed by Irwin Allen and John Guillermin
    Screenplay adapted by Sterling Silliphant

    Source: Many, many viewings, with some support from