I suppose it’s just coincidence that this film wrapped 27 years to the day before 9/11, but in the wake of those terrorist attacks, and the ultimate sacrifice of hundreds of rescue personnel, this film carries a level of grim irony. Beyond that, however, Irwin Allen’s clichéd, overblown disaster spectacle offers little in the way of significance.
Make no mistake, The Towering Inferno is polished, high-grade old-Hollywood escapism, but the story telling is so paint-by-the-numbers that the film should have looked like “Whistler’s Mother.” It leaves no well-worn Hollywood trope unused and the large cast of archetypes are mostly cardboard clichés, which helps in a movie like this since cardboard burns so easily.
Paul Newman is the maverick architect ready to walk away from his career. Faye Dunaway is his girlfriend, torn between career and having a family. William Holden is the hard nosed businessman who thinks his new 135-story building is unsinkable, um, completely fire-safe. Richard Chamberlain is the businessman’s son-in-law, who cuts costs and corners to get on daddy’s good side. Fred Astaire is the soft-hearted con man targeting a rich widow.
Most of them get whatever scant characterization they have in the first half-hour and after that, the fire and Steve McQueen are the undisputed stars of the movie. McQueen’s unflappable fire chief is not a deep or well-written character but, like his co-stars, he brings years of history that give his character a sense of weight that the script does not include.
As is typical with a film like this, one’s chances of survival are directly proportional to one’s salary and billing. Those actors moving up from television are pretty much kindling. Those that don’t burn plunge like Faye Dunaway’s neckline from a top floor. Richard Chamberlain is such a sniveling weasel that he’s pretty much guaranteed a high-profile demise. They might as well have fitted him with a red Star Trek uniform.
On the plus side, the film’s pre-Star Wars, pre-CGI special effects are almost seamless. If they remade this film as they did Irwin Allen’s previous disaster blockbuster, The Poseidon Adventure, they might make the film louder or flashier, but they probably couldn’t have made the effects any more convincing than they did. They are a few shots where the painted backdrops of the San Francisco skyline is obvious, but these are the exception.
And let’s face it, we don’t watch a movie like The Towering Inferno to hear Shakespearean dialogue or see Paul Newman give an Oscar-caliber performance. We watch to see a building burn like a sonuvabitch and this movie delivers the goods in a big way. Along with the original Poseidon, The Towering Inferno represents the cream of the seventies disaster movie. They may not have been great filmmaking but they were awesome spectacles.