Friday, February 17, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Towering Inferno (1974)


John Guillerman
(Action Sequences by Irwin Allen)
Sterling Siliphant
Based on the novels
The Tower
Richard Martin Stern
The Glass Inferno
Thomas N. Scortia
Frank M. Robinson
Original Music
John Williams
Fred J. Koenekamp

I have pretty much decided that  any review I would post next, as health permitted, would be of a film romantic in nature.  Nobody on the planet is as much a promoter of that crazy little thing called love as I am.  Look at the evidence:  I’ve been married three times and have been in numerous other permanent relationships ranging from six months to ten years.  What better credentials are there than experience?

I’m sure that there are already a few of you out there scratching your head trying to figure out what is so romantic about The Towering Inferno. The answer is: practically everything.  Think of it as The Love Boat, Love American Style, or even the movie Valentine’s Day which was released just two years ago.  The  only difference is that all of  the heartache and heart throbbing takes place in and around an imaginary 138 story high rise in San Francisco on the very same date that Producer/Director Irwin Allen decided to torch the building.

For starters, we have architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who designed The Glass Tower and is having an affair with Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway).  The first thing Doug and Susan do upon his return from Bumfuck-wherever-he-was for two years is to ignite their own campfire by frictioning two bodies together. 

Doug would like for Susan to come to the wilderness jungle and “do good things” with him which means getting married and raising a passel full of mealy mouthed little brats.   That might be why he packed  “$140 worth of vulgar underwear” in his suitcase. Unfortunately for Doug, Susan has been offered the position of Managing Editor of the magazine for which she works.  This is what Doug refers to as the two of them “having a situation.”  I would have thought the fact that he went missing for two years would have been a situation as well, but who am I to comment on fictional agreements between two fictional adults in a fictional romantic disaster film.

Susan:  See Doug, I want the kind of life you’re talking about, I want that.  And I want a place where our kids can run around, grow, and be free.
Doug:  But?
Susan:  I want this job, I’ve wanted it for five years.  I’ve worked for it for five years.  Now suddenly it’s there.  You see, I have ideas, Doug. I can do something with it, something that hasn’t been done before.  I guess I want both and I can’t have both, can I?
Doug:   I don’t know.

Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the snappy dialog rather quickly.

Con artist Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) is getting ready to con rich old widow Lisolette (Jennifer Jones) by selling her some phony stock.  He has a date with her in the party in the penthouse that evening celebrating the opening of The Glass Tower, which is where he intends to woo her and then screw her over.  What Harlee doesn’t know but what we find out  later is that Lisolette is already on to his scheme.  But she doesn’t care, which means despite her wealth, she’s probably hit a pretty long dry spell.  We know that love will burn brightly between these two canaries eventually.  Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) works for Jim Duncan (William Holden) and is married to Duncan’s daughter Patty (Susan Blakely).  The romantic fires between these two may have burned hot  and intense at one time, but their passion has fizzled out  like a wasted sparkler on July 5th and the chances of them ever rekindling that flaming spark are now non existent.  But since Roger only married Patty to further his own career by using his father-in-law’s money and influence, she’ll probably end up being better off. 

Patty:  Roger,  if you’ve done anything to Daddy’s building, God help you.
Roger:  Maybe I don’t need God’s help anymore, or your old man’s.  Not anymore.   So don’t expect me to shake every time Daddy barks, even if that’s what you want me to do.  
Patty: All I want is the man I thought I married.  But I guess we’re running out of reasons to stay married, aren’t we?
Roger:  It’s getting late, we mustn’t miss the party.

We certainly know what Roger’s priorities are and that makes wife Patty pretty much expendable.  It’s a damn good thing Irwin Allen didn’t pair her up with O.J. Simpson for this movie or Patty may never had made it to the credits with her head attached.  He has his own way of dispensing with his betrothed that is pretty nasty. 

Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) works for Jim Duncan as well.  I’m not sure what his job is but I suspect it involves a lot of ass kissing.  At one point he shows up with the biggest pair of scissors I’ve ever seen for a ribbon cutting ceremony.  I don’t know what happened to those scissor when the film was over, but Marcia Clark and Chris Darden never did come up with O.J.’s murder weapon. Hmmm…… 

Dan also is hot to trot for his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery).  They are having a very illicit affair.  I know this to be true because the screenwriter Sterling Silliphant makes it perfectly clear that Dan has to keep Lorrie’s flagpole riding top secret, although it is never explained why.  So after a long hard day’s work Dan shuts the phones off and they retire to the back of his office for some well earned boinking right about the time that one tiny spark ignites a night of blazing suspense.  What could possibly go wrong for this loving couple?


Mayor Ramsay (Jack Collins) shows up with his gorgeous wife Paula (Sheila Allen).  Although they are a couple of long married old farts, we know they are still deeply in love  because they tell us  just before the wife takes a fun filled ride in the scenic elevator.   She has hair to kill for.

The deaf widow, Mrs. Albright  lives on the 87th Floor with her two brats Angela (Carlena Gower) and Bobby Brady Phillip (Mike Lookinland).  Philip loves music and wears his headphones practically all the time.  His love of melodies is really just one of those annoying things that enables  him and sis Angela to figure heavily into the plot further down the road. 


Bartender Carlos (Gregory Sierra) loves his cases of 1929 Chianti.   And Senator Parker (Robert Vaughn) loves the Chianti as well, and may love somebody else but whoever it is, they weren’t invited to the party.  But by now, you get the idea.

Then there’s the aforementioned Jim Duncan.  He too has a lot of love. Not necessarily for his daughter, Patty, but for his pride and joy, The Glass Tower, the tallest building in the world and part of what Doug Roberts refers to as Duncan’s Edifice Complex.  The Glass Tower is an urban renewal project and is a government subsidized building where rich people can enjoy the finer things in life that the rest of us slobs could never afford but always seem to be footing the bill for.  You know, Republican Corporate Welfare.  I guess even back in the 70’s it was the American way:  Feed the wealthy, cut the feet out from under the middle class and the poor.

Jim loves his 130 story billion dollar building so much, he wants to build more of them all over the country.  But to obtain that goal, he needs the Senator to help him latch on to some more Government handouts.  He doesn’t give the Senator a case of ‘29 Chianti out of the goodness of his heart, you know.

While head architect Doug Roberts was running around in some jungle pretending to be Tarzan, Jim’s Tower began to experience costs over runs.  So when his favorite son-in-law, Roger, tells him that he can shave a few million off the budget, he doesn’t really question why or how.   So when the whole thing decides to go up like a Roman Candle  on the 4th of July because of faulty shoddy wiring below the specs Doug had insisted on, Jim can also plead ignorance while kicking Roger in the ass.  Besides, Roger is pretty much a shitty son-in-law anyway.

And up in smoke it goes.  We’re not talking about an old Cheech and Chong movie here.  When that one not so tiny sparks ignites a pile of  rags in a store room on the 81st floor, and when some dip shit comes along and opens the door to see if perhaps it is Cheech and Chong lighting one up, all hell breaks lose.  It’s time to call the fire department and fire fighter in chief Chief Mike O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who was probably pretty damn glad he was able to avoid all the banal dialogue and silly plot manipulations which occupy the first thirty seven minutes.  All O’Hallorhan has to do is show up, fight the fire, and rescue people. But by the time the movie is over and he has practically gone through hell in a gasoline rain coat, he’ll undoubtedly be wishing he had been a bit player reciting some of the more dreary lines in the script, just as long as he wasn’t playing Dan Bigelow or Will Giddings (Norman Burton.)

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.

And let’s face it, the supporting cast of William Holden, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Chamberlain isn’t too shabby either.  Add a lot of fire, a lot of smoke, a lot of flaming, charred, burned up humans, some of them falling 100 stories or more to their death, 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.  The film grossed $116 million dollars which was quite a princely sum in those days.  Not to mention that the film still does well on DVD and is now on blu-ray where you see every little blister on burning bodies bubble up and spew pus all over the place.  Okay, well maybe not that graphic.

Despite the abundance of headlining actors in The 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 thankless chores. Once we get past the initial plot set ups that enable us to get to know the characters well enough to know who to root for, who we wish to become a crispy critter, who we wish weren’t here at all, and who to feel really really bad about when they become a flaming diving fireball dropping out of the sky, the action and suspense only lets up for brief intervals so all these high priced superstars can get some screen time.  There’s nothing more mesmerizing than watching a flaming body fall a hundred floors or more to the ground.

Allen also does well at piling on and keeps you on edge for long periods of time, with such things as a long climb up a flaming exploding stairwell 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.

Just like most disaster films 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

Doug Roberts: I'm not a cheeseburger.
Susan: No, you're way better, all protein, no bread, now all I need to take with you is eight glasses of water.

James Duncan: Find me the architect that designed you, and who needs Doug Roberts?
Susan: I do.

James Duncan (after his building has killed almost 200 people): You know there's... nothing that any of us can do to bring back the dead.

The silliest moments were reserved for Dan and Lorrie.

Dan:  You know what astonishes me?
Lorrie:  What?
Dan:  You make love with a girl…
Lorrie:  Mmm..hmm
Dan:  And afterwards there’s no visible evidence, nothing to mark the event.  I mean look at you.  You look like you could be going to church.

Uh, maybe Dan ought to be conversing with the maid that has to clean his dirty sheets.  I’m sure she’s seen more commemoration over the years than she’d care to remember.  A few seconds later:

Lorrie:  Did you leave a cigarette burning.
Dan:  That’s not a cigarette.

At which point Dan opens the door to the outer office just long enough to find out two things:

1.  Lorrie’s sense of smell is practically non existent.
2.  Somebody decided to build a bonfire and there isn’t any ribs, chicken, steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, or even marshmallows in his portable fridge.

The best of the performances is turned in by Steve McQueen. As Chief Michael O'Hallorhan who is called to put the fire out, he seems to relish has role as Fire Fighter in Chief.  In fact, Allen initially wanted him to play the part of the architect, but McQueen knowing what suit would fit him well,  and that the part of a glorified high rise doodler was for that other guy by the name of Newman, makes the most of the opportunity.

Paul Newman on the other hand is a mixed bag. When he's playing his scenes with McQueen, he’s okay. At other times he seems a bit stiff and uncomfortable.  Then again, maybe it was resentment.  By contract, both Newman and McQueen were to have equal number of lines in the script.  By the time some dildo brain opens that utility closet door to actually get the real  movie started, Newman has already used up about half of his. 

Much of that was wasted on a lot of pointless dialogue with the very wooden Faye Dunaway who was undoubtedly signed solely for name recognition, and whose character could have been written out completely and not be missed.  Her presence is mostly pointless filler.  And the story goes that Faye Dunaway was extremely difficult to work with, so much so that she had to be threatened by William Holden to get the job done. But hanging out at the top of a high rise doing particularly nothing has to be a bit of a comedown for an academy award nominated actress.  But she would bounce back and win the golden statue for Network, then go on to do real cinematic masterpieces like Mommie Dearest and Supergirl.


Fred Astaire as con artist Harlee Claiborne out to bilk Lisolette Mueller fares a bit better. At least both he and Jones are given real things to do, and in the case of Jones, she plays a very unlikely heroine.  This was in fact, Jennifer Jones last motion picture gig and it’s nice to see her go out in a blaze of glory. 

Wagner as Dan Bigelow is a charmer but we just can't buy into his relationship with Lorrie no matter how hard we try.  But like some others, they are only here to be kindling for the weenie roast and nothing else. 


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, and whine about her failing marriage. Chamberlain, on the other hand, seems to like playing the role of the villain and he does it smarmily well.

I guess I have to mention O.J. Simpson aka Nevada Inmate 02648927, as much as I hate doing so.  The less said, the better.  The best thing I can say is that he disappears from the movie at the 1 hour and 13 minute mark holding a cat and doesn’t show up again until the 2 hour and 37 minute mark still holding his pussy. I always hope they’ll re-edit the movie with the murderous bastard showing back up as a char-broiled corpse or flying out of a top floor window.  No such luck.  One can only dream.

After having the number one hit single “Morning After” come out of his previous hit film, The Poseidon Adventure, gives it another go here and tries to one up himself.  It was Maureen McGovern who made the previous tune a humongous hit, although she didn’t perform the song in the movie.  This time, Allen shoots her up to the Penthouse of The Glass Tower to personally perform a little ditty called “We May Never Love Like This Again.”  Lightning in a bottle did not strike twice as The Towering Inferno song only made it up to number 83 on the Billboard 100.  Whether McGovern made it down or was burnt to a crisp is left to the imagination depending on how you feel about her or the song.  As for the rest of the score it was penned by the Great John Williams, and as with any Williams score fits the film well but except for the title sequence, it isn’t particularly memorable.


No matter. The Towering Inferno will still entertain you for the most part. 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 spellbinding night of suspense. Irwin Allen pulled it all together to put quite a spectacle on the screen, making the most of the fact that he had the use of two novels, The Tower" by Richard Martin Stern, and "The Glass Inferno" by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, two major studios, two film superstars, and an astronomical (at that time) budget.  It is easily the best disaster film to come out of the silly seventies, despite some of the slow moving business early in the film before things get lit up. 

Unfortunately after having reached this pinnacle of success, Allen would not even come close to reaching it again and with each subsequent film his productions went from being somewhat bad to being truly mediocre. Considering how much I really liked this film, it's a shame.  But if you are the best of a genre of a whole decade known as much for it’s silliness as anything else, I have no choice but to give you my grade and in this case it’s a B+.