Directed by: John Guillermin.
Written by: Stirling Silliphant based on the novels by Richard Martin Stern & Thomas N. Scortia
Starring: Steve McQueen (Chief Mike O'Hallorhan), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (Jim Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan Franklin), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty), Richard Chamberlain (Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Lisolette), O.J. Simpson (Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Parker), Robert Wagner (Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Sheila Allen (Paula Ramsay), Norman Burton (Giddings), Jack Collins (Mayor Ramsay), Don Gordon (Kappy), Felton Perry (Scott), Gregory Sierra (Carlos).
The Towering Inferno is a big, dumb, old fashioned, star studded action adventure, which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because even action blockbusters in the 1970s cared a least a little about getting good actors into the movie to elevate the screenplay, and because unlike modern action movies, the action sequences are clear, well edited and exciting – not overburdened by thudding music, and rapid fire editing that makes everything confusing. It’s bad because it still doesn’t have much of a brain in its head, and because back in the 1970s, they felt that if you made a BIG movie it had to be a LONG movie at the same time – at nearly three hours, The Towering Inferno requires you to suspend your disbelief for far too long. It’s effective – but would have been far more effective had they cut out at least an hour.
The movie takes place in San Francisco, in a brand new sky scrapper – apparently the tallest building in the world, with a huge glass façade. The architect is Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who has decided to retire now that his triumph is complete, and move to the middle of nowhere with his soon to be wife (Faye Dunaway). What Doug does not know is that to save money, the building’s owner Jim Duncan (William Holden) leaned on subcontractors to find ways to build the building more cheaply than Doug's plans called for. In particular, Duncan's slimy son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who was responsible for the buildings wiring did barely enough to get the building up to code – but considering the load the building has to take, Doug knew that more was required. Of course on the night of the buildings huge opening gala, things go wrong, the electric system malfunctions, a fire starts, and grows out of control – trapping all the VIPS on the top floor, as Doug tries to keep things under control, and fire chief Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen) tries to put the fire out.
The Towering Inferno held my interest for its first two hours – and even had some heart pounding moments of excitement, like Newman trying to get to kids and woman up a destroyed staircase. Newman is fine in the role of Roberts –a good man who is upset that his buildings is being destroyed, but even more distraught that people are dying. Steve McQueen is essentially playing Steve McQueen as the fire chief, who is daring and selfless as he tries to save the people in the building. It was also nice to see old timer Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role as a con man, but a sweet, good natured one. He has some nice chemistry with another old timer Jennifer Jones. Richard Chamberlain is appropriately slimy as the guy who cut the most corners – although he is essentially there because the movie needs a human villain, and he is fairly one note. Most of the rest of the cast is limited to one note roles, although since the cast is full of great actors, they do add some nice notes to their roles.
The action climax of The Towering Inferno – involving a whole hell of lot of water – is well handled, but by then, I had grown tired of the movie, and just wanted it to end. As well made as the film is, it simply goes on far too long, and eventually, I grew restless. It is certainly preferable to a film by Michael Bay – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie.