Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

As the disasters got bigger, the people got smaller, and the only kind of response most viewers could give to the people on the screen was to play the guessing game of who’s going to live and who’s going to die horribly? In fact, the advertising for Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (directed by Ronald Neame, 1972) invited precisely this kind of speculation: “Who Will Survive?” It’s uncomfortably easy to play this game—and win—in The Towering Inferno. The cowardly, conniving Roger Simmons (played with gusto by Richard Chamberlain), whose reduction of wiring insulation specifications has weakened the building’s defenses against fire, is clearly marked for a loathsome death from his first appearance in the film. Just as obviously, his father-in-law, builder Jim Duncan (William Holden), whose insistence on saving money put Simmons up to no good in the first place, is doomed to live with his guilt. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) cannot possibly die; Battalion Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) could go either way; Senator Gary Parker will die because Robert Vaughn always comes to a bad end; either Fred Astaire or Jennifer Jones—but not both—will die; and so on.

Some of this predictable, slapdash characterization may be due to the superficial fusion of differing characters from two separate novels; but that’s certainly no excuse for plain bad writing. The worst scenes in the film are those pathetic attempts at character confrontation that pit one good but unenthusiastic actor against another: Fire Chief chews Architect for designing unsafe building; Architect condemns Builder for violating specifications his plans called for; Builder denounces Son-in-law for overzealousness in cost-cutting. This exercise in buck-passing could have lent a good deal of character tension to the film; but if your best idea for a hard-hitting piece of accusatory dialogue (Architect to Builder) is “What do they call it when you kill people?”—well, kiss character tension goodbye.

A dramatic reversal of Paul Newman’s customary wisecracking macho image is promised early in the film when, after the fire breaks out, we behold a shaken weakling incapable of action. This intriguing idea is, unfortunately, short-lived, and the Architect goes on to become one of the film’s two key champions. Nevertheless, when given half a chance, Newman achieves a modicum of effect in portraying Roberts as a comfortable, successful man who is bewildered to find himself suddenly a hero. The burden of the film’s failure as human drama rests squarely on the shoulders of director John Guillermin, who—as in his other “big movie” The Blue Max (1966)—consistently settles for less than the best from his actors. Yet even as badly written and directed as it is, the character interplay is not without its occasional fringe benefits, including Richard Chamberlain’s early scenes with Newman, Holden, and Susan Blakely; and a surprisingly good, though brief, performance by soap opera first-stringer Susan Flannery as Lorrie, a secretary whose love-tryst with Publicity Director Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) turns into a nightmare. Even Holden and Newman, whose many confrontations tax both patience and credulity, manage one good scene together: the Architect agonizingly tells the Builder of the death of a building official, the first person hurt by the fire. By the time the two receive word of his death, we have already seen scores of others dead or dying on the floors below; and we are struck with the irony of their shock as they feel only the first sting of the hornet’s nest of guilt that will descend on them before the ordeal is over.

Yet the film’s insistent indictment of Duncan and Simmons, and its qualified accusation of Roberts, lack all conviction, despite the explicitness with which it spells out their personal responsibility for the disaster, because the fire itself is so far more convincing and menacing a villain than the script’s paper-doll miscreants and good/bad guys. For this reason The Towering Inferno makes a better accounting of itself as a pure action film. As director of the action sequences, the hand of Irwin Allen is every bit as visible as (and considerably more dexterous than) that of Guillermin. The Panavision (Color by DeLuxe) cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc is always solid, though it stumbles in its occasional efforts to be impressive: the opening helicopter shots leave no doubt that someone has been watching La dolce vita again; and an unnecessarily baroque crane shot records the insignificant arrival of a taxicab delivering Roberts to the Simmons home. The process work is curiously inconsistent, now absolutely convincing, now embarrassingly transparent. The tired device of slow motion for recording a death, on the other hand, is used well and sparingly, and is particularly effective in the immolation of Bigelow and Lorrie.

Pace is of vital importance to the film’s success as an action picture, and I suspect again that Allen more than Guillermin is responsible for the rise and fall of tension and the careful approximation of film time to real time. The film is never slow; exposition is handled quickly and early on gives way to suspense, thence to violent death and destruction. About midway, the pace eases a little, as the film’s concerns turn to the procedural depiction of escape and rescue. We are allowed more and more breathing spaces, until the climactic flooding of the Glass Tower puts out the fire, and washes us into a mercifully short—but insipidly moralistic—falling action.

Most effective in the progress of the film is the way the characters’ lack of faith mirrors the viewer’s skepticism: We are not satisfied with merely being told that the elevators cannot get past the burning 81st floor, that the emergency stairwell is impassable, that the wind is too high for a helicopter to land on the building’s roof. Each of these sounds like an easy excuse to get the characters trapped on the top floor. Obliging our curiosity, each premise is relentlessly justified as a handful of characters tries each possible egress and fails spectacularly. But as good as they generally are, some of the action sequences are excessive in their demands on audience response. In one scene a terrified acrophobic fireman hangs in mid-air, 80 stories up, supported by the strained hand of Fire Chief O’Hallorhan, who in turn clings to the roof of a disabled elevator full of people, which hangs precariously by a single cable, all held up by a gradually descending helicopter. This piling of one tension upon another yields steadily diminishing returns in audience response: the ultimate effect of the scene is less suspenseful than it is absurd, recalling the broken fire-escape climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It is finally no cinematic brilliance but only the unnerving quality of its subject matter that enables the film to touch its viewers’ sensitivities without being at all sensitive itself. This is why, for all its unevenness, pretense, and occasional downright incompetence, The Towering Inferno is a viscerally affecting film, from which one needs a period of readjustment.

THE TOWERING INFERNO
Direction: John Guillermin; Direction of Action Sequences: Irwin Allen. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant, after the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp; Cinematography of Action Sequences: Joseph Biroc. Editing: Harold F. Kress, Carl Kress. Production Design: William Creber. Special Effects: L.B. Abbott. Music: John Williams. Production: Irwin Allen.
The Players: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Normann Burton, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Robert Vaughn, Jack Collins, Don Gordon, Feldon Perry.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow