By Scott Ross
In 1974, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” seemed like both a logical next step for Irwin Allen, progenitor of the wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure (death by water succeeded by annihilation by fire) and a topping-out of the genre. What with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman sharing over-the-title billing and the various Grand Hotel-style victims, villains, heroes and survivors including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughan, Robert Wagner and O.J. Simpson, there didn’t appear to be anywhere to go beyond it. Not that Allen took the hint; a succession of box-office loxes like The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure pretty much ended him. Nor did the Hollywood studios, which, alongside Inferno‘s direct competition, the moronic Earthquake, leaped to concoct such masterpieces of the genre as Avalanche (1978), Meteor (1979), and no fewer than three Airport spin-offs, each more stultifying than its predecessor. Only Jaws (1975), a rara avis (rara ikhthys?) that transcended genre anyway, the Richard Lester-directed thriller Juggernaut (also 1974) which is less about a disaster than preventing one,* Rollercoaster (1977) which was more a detective thriller than an outright “disaster movie,” and The Big Bus (1976), a satire on the whole phenomenon (albeit not a terribly funny one) could be said to be decent pictures. The rest were just increasingly ludicrous attempts to cash in.
When I saw The Towering Inferno, at 13-going-on-14, it more or less satisfied my unsophisticated taste for exciting trash — although even then, having read the two books it was based on, it didn’t satisfy me completely. Through one of those odd coincidences, Richard Martin Stern had written a novel (The Tower) about a new, World Trade Center-like New York building catching fire, while Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson had simultaneously published The Glass Inferno, concerning a glass-and-steel Chicago skyscraper and the freak fire that destroys it. (The movie jumped the rest of the way across the country, to San Francisco.) Warner Bros. bought the Stern book and 20th Century-Fox the Scortia and Robinson; rather than compete with each other, they co-produced the opportunistically titled The Towering Inferno (The Glass Tower would have been a more euphonious title, but would have lost the incendiary adjective), splitting the profits. Perhaps inevitably, the picture has the feel, less of a real movie, than of a business venture. Sure as hell it’s calculated to the nth degree. Its approach is schematic in the extreme, the Ross Hunter super-glamour production style mated to a form of storytelling in which character is less important than incident. The screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, was capable of fine work (he adapted, and I think deepened, the 1967 In the Heat of the Night and did a fine job with The Liberation of L.B. Jones for William Wyler in 1970) but, perhaps at Allen’s direction, threw out most of the figures from the novels, and the best story arcs. The characters in The Towering Inferno are almost entirely comprised of cardboard. And we know what happens to that in a fire.
I wouldn’t argue that either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, both of which I have re-read and enjoyed as an adult, are great literature, but they are intelligently and imaginatively written, which is far more than can be of Silliphant’s by-the-numbers script. Stern’s book is the more sobering of the two, ending with the strong implication that the people in the uppermost floor have succumbed to heat and suffocation. (The use of a breeches buoy stretched between skyscrapers comes from his novel.) Robinson and Scortia’s book is fatter, and stronger, with a greater variety of characters (the architect, the builder and the fire chief originate here) and a compelling recurrent stylistic device: The fire, from initial spark to smoldering death, is depicted, appropriately (and frighteningly) as a Beast — a living, breathing, ravening thing feeding, growing and devouring. (The let’s-blow-the-water-tanks climax also comes from The Glass Inferno.)
The human figures are also more real, and less glitzy, than their counterparts in the picture, from the middle-aged gay furniture dealer† contemplating (and, briefly, before he comes to his senses, engaging in) an act of arson who forms an initially uneasy alliance with a young Latino would-be felon to the woman meeting for a loveless, dispiriting bout of sex with a married man and whose fall from the building results in the most shockingly beautiful metaphor in the novel. Silliphant instead invents an aging con-man and his quarry (Astaire and Jones) and a ’70s having-it-all clothes-horse (Dunaway) weighing love against career, while the adulterers are transformed into Wagner and his secretary — who, in Susan Flannery’s fine performance, is at least a woman with some miles on her. Interestingly, the media is entirely invisible in The Towering Inferno: There are no reporters of any kind depicted, and no television coverage on view. (None of the televisions in the building are turned on either; how likely is that?) The Scortia/Robinson novel includes an unscrupulous local television journalist who sees in the fire his main chance, and he might have been the literary source of another nasty reporter in another Fox movie set in a besieged high-rise, the William Atherton character in the 1988 Die Hard.
And yet with all of its dramturgical weaknesses, and even when viewed from a current perspective, somehow the damn thing works. Part of that, I suppose, is nostalgia: Nearly all of the movie’s stars are dead now (or, in Dunaway’s and Simpson’s cases, inactive) and seeing them today elicits a pang that we who once were able can never again go to a theatre and see Paul Newman, or William Holden, or Fred Astaire, or Richard Chamberlain in a new movie. Nor will we see a major studio picture in which the majority of the special effects are real, and not computer-generated, usually indifferently. Whatever opprobrium may be directed toward him, Allen, who directed all of the movie’s action sequences, didn’t stint; there was nothing cheap about his biggest hits. The picture’s cinematographers Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc (the latter shot the special effects scenes) won Academy Awards for their work, and it’s richly textured, especially for a movie of this type, with no embarrassingly obvious blue-screen process shots.
On a personal note, I was just beginning, when The Towering Inferno was released, to develop a strong affinity for movies, and for motion picture scoring, and the soundtrack LP was, along with Michel Legrand’s 1973 The Three Musketeers, one of the first I purchased with my own money. I was knocked out by John Williams’ Main Title theme, his almost shocking “Helicopter Rescue” (although the music on that track actually appears elsewhere in the movie) and the mounting suspense, and its release, on “Planting the Charges,” which brought to my ears some of the visceral excitement the movie had elicited from me in the theater. But “Trapped Lovers” seemed to me then — and seems to me now — a work of orchestral genius, and a textbook example of how a gifted composer can create astonishingly fulsome and expressively emotional music from variations on a dreary pop tune (“We May Never Love Like This Again,” Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s inevitable follow-up to Poseidon‘s equally metaphorical “The Morning After.”) Williams goes from a slightly hysterical opening (which, in context, is wholly appropriate) to a tender and increasingly urgent, pulsing accompaniment before building to an agonizing concluding passage and a shattering climax. It’s no wonder Spielberg wanted him for Jaws.
The Towering Inferno was the first picture I can remember seeing with end-credits that lasted more than a minute. Because Allen felt strongly about acknowledging his technical team, the picture ends with a credit sequence that, set to a Williams elegy called, on the LP, “An Architect’s Dream,” ran three-and-a-half minutes… a seeming eternity at the time, although they now routinely run twice as long. And then, as now, I stayed until the end; it just seems a part of the experience even when, as Orson Welles observed (in the 1960s!) “the second assistant powder-puff fellow gets a credit.” This is much more often the case today, thanks to George Lucas’ similar desire, in 1977, to give his special effects staff on Star Wars a more public credit than was the norm. And it leaves me a bit torn: I’m all for the movies’ “grunts” being given recognition. But can’t it somehow be on paper, so that the rest of us don’t have to sit through that endless crawl every time we go to a movie?
*Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for the reminder!
†Robinson was gay, and the novels he co-wrote with Scortia usually contain at least one sympathetic homosexual man.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross