The Towering Inferno is the third of the star-studded, epic disaster movies of the early 1970s.
The success of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) gave the movie’s producer, Irwin Allen, the resources and clout to take on an even more ambitious project as its follow-up. Based on portions of two bestselling novels, Richard Martin Stern’s The Tower (1973) and Thomas Scortia and Bob Robinson’s The Glass Inferno (1974), the screenplay for The Towering Inferno imagines a catastrophic fire breaking out on the 85th floor of the world’s tallest building, on the night of its dedication party. The blaze is too far from the ground to be extinguished with conventional firefighting equipment and it has cut off all escape routes to the ground, trapping party guests, including the architect of the building (Paul Newman), on the 135th floor. As the fire climbs higher, thus giving the film its ticking clock, a necessity in any suspense-driven film, various rescue efforts are attempted. The Towering Inferno tracks multiple subplots concerning the guests, victims, rescue workers and villains civenu tracks the storiesThe movie .
The production costs for the film were breath-taking—over $14 million in 1974, or $140 million corrected for inflation. Allen’s 20th-Century Fox and Warner Brothers had each optioned one of the novels at $400,000 each; wishing to avoid a box office face off, the two studios co-produced the film, a Hollywood first. As production costs ballooned, they were lucky they had, as neither could have financed it alone. With the exception of Gene Hackman, the “all-star” cast of The Poseidon Adventure was composed of veteran actors, has-beens and TV stars. The Towering Inferno, however, had wall-to-wall A-listers to pay, including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden, all credited above the title and at the height of their box office popularity. Newman told the media that he had been paid $1,000,000 and 10% of the gross receipts (McQueen must have received a similar cut). In 1975, the film earned over $100 million in the US alone.
Real stars meant Allen had to content with egos and self-indulgent behavior o set (McQueen insisted that he and Newman have exactly the same number of lines; Dunaway showed up late and skipped days altogether until Holden threatened her with physical violence, etc). The special effects required much blue-screen, fill in photography and lots of stuntmen. The tower itself was a 70-foot model on the Warner Brothers back lot that had to be approached by cranes.
Many of the smaller parts are generic conventions of the disaster movie. Fred Astaire recapitulates the Helen Hayes role from Airport wherein a lovable Hollywood legend plays a disreputable character; someone had to risk their life to save an animal, which falls to the security-guard played by up-and-coming star O.J. Simpson (he rescues a kitty). The villain (Richard Chamberlain) has to perish in the disaster he instigates; the producer’s wife (Sheila Matthews = Mrs Irwin Allen) must be given a small part, and so on. The character names in The Towering Inferno are amongst the most boring and generic—Doug Roberts, Sheila Franklin, etc— ever to be used in a high-profile movie.
The Towering Inferno was conceived of, not only as a blockbuster disaster movie, but as a prestige picture as well. The mile-high fire concept made the latter possible. Unlike a tidal wave improbably rolling in exactly at midnight on New Year Eve, the anxieties exploited by the the two novels were real enough in the early ’70s, as four record-breaking skyscrapers of unprecedented height went up in quick succession in Chicago (John Hancock Center/1969/100 floors; Sears Tower/1974/110 floors) and in New York (Twin Towers of the World Trade Center/1973/104 floors). The scale of these masterpieces of gravity-defying engineering raised real concerns about public safety, which were confirmed when a fire broke out on the 11th floor of World Trade Center One on 14 February 1975 and burned for 4 hours before firefighters could contain it, so vast were the floors, and heightened by the dismaying amount of difficulties posed by a fire at so low a level of the gargantuan structure.
The Towering Inferno, has two primal fears to exploit, fire and high places and and in the process of doing so, serves up some really viscerally-shocking imagery of burning human bodies falling from 86th floor windows, being blown out of elevators and, stumbling around aflame. In a macabre plot twist at the film’s climax, laced with ironic and symbolic meanings, people are drowned while on the 135th floor of a burning skyscraper. The movie was accused at the time of partaking in the escalation of graphic violence and gory effects begun—and never surpassed—by The Exorcist (1973) and continued with Jaws (1975). This was somewhat unfair, given the differences between the actual dangers posed by demonic possession and rogue sharks as opposed to fires in tall buildings, which proved to be real enough. With its explicit homilies, mainly delivered by McQueen, about the results of Promethean over-reaching and human arrogance The Towering Inferno, is essentially an expensive, feature-length public service announcement, its expensive effects and violent content being used to shock audiences into awareness of a real and present threat.
The fires that the caused the collapse of both World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001, of course, played out all the major disasters dramatized in The Towering Inferno, including the inaccessibility of blazes high off the ground, blocked exits, and slow evacuation times, on a scale vaster than anything even Irwin Allen could have imagined. Images of burning bodies falling from skyscraper windows were no longer gratuitous violence, they were the evening news. The events of that day had the unintended effect of returning a sense of dignity and gravitas to the movie, which had come to be viewed as an exercise in camp, but is no longer remembered for its stars and splashy effects, but respected as a wise early warning that went unheard.