THE TOWERING INFERNO, 1974
The world’s tallest building is a buzz during its dedication ceremony in San Francisco, attended by the great and good of the city. But the night turns into disaster when an electrical problem leads to a series of deadly fires breaking out. The race is on to save the 300 people trapped in the sky-scraper’s pent-house dining suite as the fire surges further toward them.
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All aboard for the maiden voyage/opening night of California’s own Titanic of high-rise buildings, a 135-story Tower of Babel, built by the hand of man (architect Newman and builder Holden) and destroyed by his greed (corner-cutting electrician Chamberlain).
For the first time, two major Hollywood studios (Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox) pooled their resources (and split the profits, between domestic and foreign box-office takings) as they both held movie rights to similar books about burning sky-scrapers. The result is a thrilling film that marks the nadir in terms of popularity, class of production and entertainment value of the 70’s disaster drama.
Producer Allen, the so-called ‘Master of Disaster’ who had brought The Poseidon Adventure to the big screen two years previous, must have felt like a kid in the candy store with the whopping budget he had to throw at hiring the biggest and most talented stars of the era (McQueen, Newman and Dunaway) and the biggest and talented stars of Hollywood’s golden age (Holden, Astaire and Jones), huge sets and models of the building to be gloriously destroyed by fire and water and the best special effects a producers wallet could purchase in 1974.
Newman and McQueen battle it out on-screen but strike more sparks off each other than the rest of the cast in what was their only screen pairing. Hardly surprising considering the hoops the publicity chiefs had to jump through to please their star egos; McQueen was the bigger star at this time (though only just) and demanded top-billing as his contract stipulated. Trouble was, so did Newman’s, so Paul struck upon a smart solution. McQueen’s name could be billed above his, providing Newman’s was billed on the left of posters and the screen. McQueen was happy, not figuring that audiences read from left to right and would see Newman’s name first. (It was also pressed upon screenwriter Silliphant that he penned an equal number of lines for both men).
Old Hollywood also scores, particularly Holden whose fakery and oily charm matches his Brylcreamed hair to perfection, flashing a smile to worried guests as he informs them that “dinner will not be delayed”, despite his mighty edifice crumbling around his ears.
Oscar-nominated Astaire is a delight as an elderly con-man trying to fleece Jones (in her last screen appearance to date) in what was one of his best latter day performances.
Allen, who helped out uncredited with the action sequences for Poseidon, gives himself equal billing with Guillermin for this film though neither of them are able to tease out the irritatingly preposterous moments and glaring continuity bloopers that cause consternation for a sharp-eyed critic: Dunaway’s see-through (good) but unforgivably brown chiffon dress; Astaire (then 75) romancing Jones (then 55); one of the film’s Oscar’s awarded for the editing, despite the eye-popping errors (the scenic elevator is seen before it meets with disaster at one moment half-way down the building then, in the next, it is at the top again).
Despite this, it is still the best by miles from a decidedly mixed bag of similar films made at this time.
There were Oscars for: cinematography, editing and best song (‘We May Never Love Like This Again’) and further nominations for best supporting actor (Astaire), best art/set direction, best score and best film.
Newman’s own son Scott appears, playing a nervous fireman helped by McQueen.