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Doug Roberts, Architect, returns from a long vacation to find work nearly completed on his skyscraper. He goes to the party that night concerned he's found that his wiring specifications have not been followed and that the building continues to develop short circuits. When the fire begins, Michael O'Halleran is the chief on duty as a series of daring rescues punctuate the terror of a building too tall to have a fire successfully fought from the ground. Written by
John Vogel <email@example.com>
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Having struck box office gold two years earlier with The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen aided by the combined financing of Fox and Warner Bros., decided to do himself one better with The Towering Inferno. No expense was spared, as evidenced by Allen securing the services of two of the top box office draws available in Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Next, he hedged his bet with a supporting cast that ran the gamut from William Holden, Fred Astaire and Faye Dunaway to soap actress Susan Flannery and football star O.J. Simpson. Add a lot of fire, a lot of smoke, a lot of flaming and charred humans and you have the makings of a box office bonanza. It's amazing that the budget was held down to a mere $14 million dollars even in 1974 dollars. Did it work? The film grossed $116 million dollars which was quite a princely sum in those days so the answer to that as far as Allen, Fox, and Warner Bros. is concerned would be yes.
Newman plays architect Doug Roberts who has been away in the jungle somewhere but is returning home just in time for the grand opening of the tallest building ever to grace California that he just happened to have designed. Doug is also returning home to his mistress played by Faye Dunaway to persuade her to join him on his next project. The head of the company building the tower is James Duncan(William Holden) whom has left a lot of the details of the construction of the tower to his no good son-in-law, Roger Simmons(Richard Chamberlain). That turns out to be bad news for everyone unfortunate to find themselves in The Tower. After some of the wiring in the building begins to have a major meltdown, Doug investigates to find that Roger has cut so many corners it could lead to a major catastrophe. Was there any doubt?
Despite the abundance of headlining actors in Towering Inferno, the true star of the film is the disaster itself, just as it is in any of these concoctions. Allen directed the action sequences with John Guillerman handling the rest of the chores. Allen does himself proud. Although we know of course that The Tower is not truly as tall as the filmmakers would have us believe, it's not obvious enough to detract from the film. It doesn't matter though, as most of the action takes place inside the building or near the suite at the top where most of our stars end up trapped. Of course this being a disaster film, we do get the privilege of watching flaming bodies fall over a hundred stories, be it it outside or down an elevator shaft.
Allen also does well at piling on the suspense and keeps you on edge for long moments, with such things as a long climb up a flaming stare well and a long decent down a scenic elevator that will have you wringing your hands. The fire sequences are all well staged as you can almost feel the flames leaping through the screen and smell the smoke circling around the room.
The problem with most disaster films is that with the good, there is generally some bad and Inferno is no exception. Some of the dialog in this film is truly horrendous.
Duncan: How bad is it? Halloran: It's a fire. All fires are bad
James Duncan: Give me the architect that designed you, and who needs Doug Roberts? Susan: I do.
In one truly silly moment, after Dan Bigelow(Robert Wagner) and his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery)have just finished love making, the fire has engulfed the room next to theirs. Lorrie, being the ever observant secretary and mistress sniffs and delivers this line: "Did someone leave a cigarette burning?"
The best of the actors is easily Steve McQueen. As Chief Michael O'Hallorhan who is called to put the fire out, he seems to relish has role as a fire department head. Paul Newman on the other hand is a mixed bag. When he's playing his scenes with McQueen, Holden, Dunaway, or Chamberlain, he's OK. In other scenes, especially when the fire initially breaks out, he appears stiff and uncomfortable. Fred Astaire is on hand as the whimsical con artist Harlee Claiborne out to bilk Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones)with some phony stocks. Jones is one of the best things going in this movie, turning out to be quite the heroine. Dunaway as Robert's girlfriend Susan is dry enough that we wish they could have brought Joanne Woodward in to give the relationship some real spark (no pun intended). Wagner as Dan Bigelow is a charmer but we just can't buy into his relationship with Lorrie (Susan Flannery). Susan Blakely as Patty Simmons, Holden's spoiled daughter and the wife of Roger (Richard Chamberlain)has nothing much to do except chastise her husband for causing Daddy a big headache. Chamberlain, on the other hand, seems to like playing the role of the villain and he does it well. You'll have no trouble believing just how big of a jerk Roger is. Last , is O.J. Simpson as the security guard who seems to be smarter than everybody else. The role requires little and in his big screen debut, Simpson gives it just that.
No matter. The Towering Inferno will still entertain you. At 165 minutes, you'll only be looking at your watch in the first half hour or so as you wait for that one tiny spark to ignite a night of suspense. Irwin Allen put quite a spectacle on the screen, but unfortunately never again duplicated it and with each subsequent film his product went from bad to being truly mediocre. Considering how much I really liked this film, it's a shame. Now, please put out that cigarette.
My Grade: B
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