Heat Up the Night with a Classic: The Towering Inferno

Danella Ramos, Contributor

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A great way to spend a chilly winter night is with a classic movie—especially one as action packed as The Towering Inferno. This 40-year-old movie is classic in every way: the plot and characters hold up over time and its relevancy to modern times is powerful.

The Towering Inferno was produced by 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers in 1974. Fox and Warner made an ultimately surprising move by joining together to produce this movie. The reasoning behind pairing up instead of competing was based on the fact that each studio had plans to release similar movies about skyscrapers catching fire. So instead of fighting at the box office, they combined the two books that were supposed to make up each film individually to create the suspenseful plot of The Towering Inferno. The two novels were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson. The main actors/actresses in the movie are Steve McQueen as the fire department chief, Paul Newman as the architect, William Holden as the skyscraper owner, Faye Dunaway as the architect’s wife, Richard Chamberlain as the electrical engineer and Fred Astaire as the elderly, sweet-talking con-man .

The movie’s budget was more than $14,000,000 (a fortune in 1974) and grossed a whopping $139,000,000 (making it the highest grossing film in 1974).  It was nominated for a “Best Picture” Academy Award.

This 2-hour-and-45-minute suspenseful film takes place in San Francisco. Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) is the mastermind architect of the glass tower. James Duncan (William Holden) owns the building and appoints his son-in-law Roger Simmons (Charmberlain) as the building’s electrical engineer. Robert accuses Simmons of cutting corners on the electrical wiring system, but Simmons insists that everything is up to standards. However, one spark in the electrical room creates a recipe for disaster in San Francisco that night.

What made me appreciate and connect with the film is the humility and realistic view of the characters. Once the situation starts to become critical, the scared and exposed are assured by loved ones that everything will be fine, when the audience knows that they might be sadly mistaken. To comfort the vulnerable is a very humble move, considering in some situations many are hung out to dry, as shown during one of the buoy lift scenes in the promenade room. Everyone for themselves, right? This movie captures the human spirit I wish would be active daily instead of only in life-or-death scenarios. In a realistic sense, I appreciated the different selection of fatalities throughout the movie. I always become so tired of disaster movies that are very predictable: The good guys/lovely couples survive while the antagonists perish. With a plot so mediocre, I can usually pick out who lives and dies 30 minutes into the film. In The Towering Inferno, I was changing your mind every few minutes. In real life, fate nor destiny does not choose only the good to survive, unfortunately. So for a film to show all angles of all different types of people suffering, the viewers gain this gut feeling afterwards that tells them that “This can happen to anyone, even to me.”

I recommend this film for any action junkie. The plot and structure is absolutely flawless.  Irwing Allen is recognized as the primary director of The Towering Inferno, but many fail to acknowledge the assistance he received from John Guillerman. Guillerman took care of the five-star casting units, while Allen handled action scenes. Guillerman could have not picked a better cast, protagonists and antagonists included. Each character’s attitude seemed to synchronize perfectly with the actor’s natural attitude.  For example, I couldn’t think of any better fit for a heroic fireman other than Steve McQueen himself. Fred Astaire’s warm soul also made him my favorite actor throughout the movie, hands down.

So next time you’re snowed in this winter, grab some popcorn and enjoy The Towering Inferno.

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