Towering Inferno (1974) Revisited
If I’m completely honest I never thought I’d be talking about a disaster movie from the 1970s. I reviewed Towering Inferno (1974) a few years ago, rather poorly too if I must say so, not really understanding that all of those disaster films of the “silver age” of American film reflected the social conscience of a country that was being rocked by scandal in government, no politician could be trusted, reality of the American dream was beginning to show its ugly face and it wasn’t nice. Veterans from a controversial war were coming home and trying to make sense of what they had just experienced. Of course that’s the same for all conflicts but that conflict has its own sense place in time.
Of course the conscience of the country’s reflected in the creativity that’s produced, I could list all the great films of that era that began with the American New Wave movement in the late liberated 1960’s all the way up to Star Wars (1977) when it exploded on itself. The era of fear in America was over, time to lighten up again with the fun of a space epic. OK so where does Towering Inferno fit into all of that film history, made around the time of the Watergate scandal, an US president, the highest office in the land, the leader of the free-worlds found to be a crook who rigged an election, driven by power that would ultimately be his downfall. Take the basic events of that scandal and place them into a brand-spanking new building and we have the foundations (pardon the pun) of this film.
So whose Nixon then you ask, for me its the builder Jim Duncan (William Holden) who has constructed this feat that stand high above the rest of the city below, it’s an American achievement that must be celebrated. You could say its the White House of the city. He’s proud of it too, over 130 stories, around 80 for business, the rest residential. Yes I have good memory. However this feat came ultimately at a cost to himself and those who have to celebrate and live there. You have a self-contained country within one building, the economy that supports those who live below. Along with the utility room that keeps it all running. If we look into the infrastructure of the building we begin to find the cracks that we’re supposed to over look if we believe things are running smoothly enough.
So who’s the culprit who decided to take a few short-cuts, use lesser materials and cut corners, it was Duncan’s son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) who at first shows no shame in his decisions. So men working in construction are being compared to politicians now, making sly deals and taking bribes for power and success. Nothing new there, but not so common in the building world…I hope. It’s not until the buildings architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who sees through all the nonsense straight away, knowing what should have been done, but wasn’t. He is the extra layer, the guy who conceived the idea for this building, one of his babies that came into being stands among the other buildings in the city (or the world). Wanting it to last, he is the public who stood by and voted for the government, helped to shape what it is today.
Moving away from my analysis we have a classic disaster that bring what used to be restricted to the B-movies which reflected the fear of nuclear war and Communisim through giant bugs and monsters, the best animated by Ray Harryhausen and populated with actors you’ve never heard of and probably wont see in A-pictures. This cast is all A-lister who stars you have at least heard of, filling the screen, playing all walks of life, mostly from high-society or politicians, connected in someway to celebrate this new buildings being opened to the public. This was the first film I saw Fred Astair who was better at dancing than acting, not to say he was awful I still believed he was man shocked by the events that hes caught it. Playing a wannabe con-man who grows to learn what is really important in life.
I can’t talk about this film without mentioning the two male leads Newman and fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) which show that no expense was spared on this film that is bleeding money and shows on-screen. It maybe 40 years old now, the special effects may start to show, however it still holds up, there was only a few scenes too, which explains why it one technical awards at the Oscars. Towering Inferno combines all the best of classic Hollywood, the drama, the star power along with a nice slice of subtext that can be lost today without another sitting of a film that at times feels too long. Maybe that can be forgiven though.