Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Towering Inferno (1974)

In 1974, Hollywood hit peak disaster movie. In that year, Universal Studios would release both “Earthquake” and “Airport 1975.” Both were massive hits. However, the year's biggest disaster picture was “The Towering Inferno.” A then-unprecedented collaboration between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, the film was Irwin Allen's follow-up to “The Poseidon Adventure.” An adaptation of two separate novels, Richard Martin Stern's “The Tower” and Thomas N. Scortia's “The Glass Inferno,” it starred two of the era's most popular actors. The film would outgross both of Universal's disaster movies, becoming the biggest global hit of the year. This enormous success would solidify Irwin Allen's status as the Master of Disaster.

The newly built Glass Tower is the tallest building in the world. The skyscraper was designed by Doug Roberts, an architect too busy working to spend time with his fiance. The owner of the building, Jim Duncan, is throwing a massive party to celebrate the Tower's completion. Unbeknownst to Roberts, Duncan has cut corners in the building's construction. As the entire tower is lit up, its electrical system is pushed to the brink. A fire breaks out in one small room. Soon, while a huge party goes on above, the fire grows and grows. Before long, the Glass Tower is ablaze. It's up to fire chief Mike O'Halloran to save as many as he can.

“The Poseidon Adventure” succeeded largely because you genuinely cared about the characters involved in this disaster. It wasn't just a movie about destruction and spectacle but the people caught in the middle. “The Towering Inferno” tries a similar approach to much diminished returns. The tower is full of people. Most of these characters receive the thinnest character development possible. Such as Robert Wagner's public relation officer and his mistress, both of whom burn to death in an especially mean-spirited scene. Or the deaf mother of two children or an old married couple. Unfortunately, you never feel a connection to these characters. This makes the destruction – and there's a lot of them – much less meaningful.

That said, the film is constructed well by Allen and director John Guillermin. The precarious setting does lead to several tense scenes. There are long scenes devoted to Paul Newman's heroic architect transporting the two kids down through the burning building. This leads to several suspenseful scenes of Newman navigating across huge drops in the building's ventilation shafts. The threat of tall heights is well utilized throughout the film. The second half features several sequences of people being lifted into helicopters via suspended chairs or dangling from damaged elevators. Naturally, the constant explosions and on-going fire does add to the tension.

Surely another aspect of “The Towering Inferno” that attracted audiences was its starring roles for both of the seventies blue-eyed screen idols. Amusingly, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen only agreed to do the movie if they both got top billing. This led to some creative poster design, giving both actors top billing depending on how you read it. Newman, sympathetic and heroic, and McQueen, steely and quietly passionate, are both well suited to their roles. Richard Chamberlain is cartoonishly sleazy as the film's villain, the conniving electrical engineer. My favorite part in the film is Fred Astaire as the elderly conman who earns the love of Jennifer Jones' lonely old woman. The cast is packed full of recognizable name: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Vaugnh, and even O.J. Simpson. Few of these performers make an impression.

Another element that makes “The Towering Inferno” the biggest, most explosive disaster movie of its era is its run time. The film is nearly three hours long, dwarfing even the longest films I've previously reviewed for this feature. This jumbo-sized runtime leaves room for lots of doom and destruction. And, boy, does it drag on after a while. The film essentially feels over, most of the people in the tower being rushed to a safe location, and there's still another half-hour to go. By the time Steve McQueen decides to put out the fire by blowing up more stuff, my patience had officially run out.

“The Towering Inferno” has another connection to the disaster movies that came before. Like the same year's “Earthquake,” its grandiose score was composed by John Williams. It's rumored the two scores share some cues. Like “The Poseidon Adventure,” the film also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Included rather randomly during the party scene is weepy love ballad “We May Never Love Like This Again,” sung by Maureen McGovern. To make the connection even more obvious, McGovern previously performed a popular cover of “The Morning After.” I guess I can't blame Irwin Allen for trying again what worked once before. While its an iconic disaster movie, and has even earned a certain degree of critical recognition, this inferno left me a little cold. [6/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks*
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*Can I count fictional famous landmarks?

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