1974: The Towering Inferno
Directed by John Guillermin and Irwin Allen
Written by Stirling Silliphant
A building full of people about to be set on fire is a tragedy. A building full of movie stars about to be set on fire is a nominee for Best Picture. The early to mid-1970s were awash in various all-star casts being menaced by every kind of disaster imaginable, from earthquakes to tidal waves to crashing airplanes to swarms of bees. But literally standing above them all is Irwin Allen’s magnum opus in celebrity endangerment, The Towering Inferno.
Allen took his practice swing with The Poseidon Adventure, which, I have to admit, was strongly in the running for my 1972 spot. Even up against The Godfather. But The Towering Inferno is the home run cut, a perfectly constructed machine that knows it’s following a formula yet follows it with such verve that it almost seems fresh. Nobody ever takes anything less than seriously, and the gravity they lend some of the more ridiculous escapades that take place a crucial in keeping the film from descending into complete camp. Not that Richard Chamberlain doesn’t give it his best.
But seriously, just look at Steve McQueen in this. His fire chief does everything short of leaping off the top of the building with a fire extinguisher here. It’s as big and iconic a movie star performance as you’re likely to see. Not an acting performance, mind you, although he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself. But a big damn movie star, all full of bravado and testosterone and guts, in the kind of role John Wayne would have played twenty years earlier. And there’s Paul Newman going toe to toe with him, exuding a different kind of star power, more sensitive and modern. He gets the girl, McQueen gets the oxygen mask and the ax.
This was another one of those big event movies that would come on network television and have me glued to the TV for the evening. At 165 minutes it’s already an epic, but this was the kind of movie that would get the 7PM on a Sunday slot, sprawling out over the night in a way that made it seem even bigger than it was. I’d struggle to stay awake until John Williams’ soaring end title music played as the credits rolled, a sleepy kind of satisfaction in having lasted through the whole thing. The rest of my family may have grumbled about the TV being monopolized for the better part of four hours, but this, this was church. A big blazing temple dedicated to the cinematic gods.
These days, I still settle into The Towering Inferno like a warm blanket. It’s comfort food, a guarantee that I’m going to be entertained for the next two hours and forty-five minutes. They’ll turn on all the lights, that closet will catch on fire, McQueen will fling himself around the building, and O.J. Simpson will be completely, uncomfortably likeable. It might not probe the human condition, but it’s a prime example of the kind of spectacle that Hollywood seems to make look all too effortless — and soulless — these days. They probably wouldn’t even actually set someone on fire if they made this today. Oh what would Steve McQueen think.