The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin & Irwin Allen, 1974): USA

Reviewed by William Conlin. Viewed on Netflix Instant View.

When I was growing up I was a big fan of disaster films. I always loved the suspense and wild ride the audience would get to see the main characters go through. As I grew up and become more aware of what I was watching I realized that most of these films were very poorly made, but the one disaster film that has stood the test of time for me is Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno.

The Towering Inferno is an ensemble epic about the opening night of a high-rise building gone wrong. Jim Duncan (William Holden) has just opened his 138-floor tower in downtown San Francisco when a major electrical fire on the 80th floor traps his 300 guests on the promenade of the tower. Now it is up to building designer Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) to save the people and extinguish the fire before the building is completely engulfed. Featuring supporting turns by Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire (in an Oscar Nominated role), Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner, The Towering Inferno is a who’s who of 70’s stars.

Coming in at just under 3 hours this movie takes an open schedule to watch in its entirety but it is well worth it. Considering its length, once you get through the first act, the pacing is pretty fast (it won the Oscar for Best Editing). Director John Guillermin handles all the dramatic scenes very well, while Irwin Allen takes on the action sequences with his world famous flare for suspense. Cinematographers Fred J. Koenekamp and Joesph F. Biroc won the 1974 Academy Award for their excellent blend of low-key lighting mixed with fire.
The film itself is dedicated to the firefighters of the world and makes multiple nods to the sacrifices that these living heroes make every day. Steve McQueen delivers excellent quips about how poorly high-rises are made Paul Newman makes an excellent transition from arrogant architect to humble survivor very well. Fred Astaire delivers a great supporting performance as an aging con man trapped in the rooftop party.

Adjusted for inflation, The Towering Inferno earned $500 Million at the global box office in it’s initial run, making it one of the most successful films of the early 1970’s. In addition to it’s 3 Oscar wins it was nominated for 5 other awards (including Best Picture). Now looked at as one of the best disaster films ever made, I highly recommend The Towering Inferno if you are looking for a good thrill… and if you have a few hours to spare…

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