After a highly successful run, as a producer of hit TV Science Fiction shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Irwin Allen returned to the big screen in 1972, producing The Poseidon Adventure, a star-studded, technically innovative, action-disaster film. He followed this up two years later with The Towering Inferno (directed with John Guillermin), another star-filled disaster film which garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and won for Cinematography, Film Editing and Best Original Song.
Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, an architect commissioned by James Duncan (William Holden), to build a new, towering skyscraper in San Francisco. Duncan has planned a lavish opening ceremony for the tower, although problems soon surface, caused by cheap, faulty wiring, with Duncan’s venal son-in-law, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) having cut corners during the building to save the project some money (and line his own pockets).
The opening act introduces us to the building and the main characters who will be trapped there. Faye Dunaway is Robert’s fiancé Susan Franklin, whose party dress has to be one of the best gowns ever worn by a Hollywood leading lady. Fred Astaire, plays a struggling con-man, Harlee Claiborne with Jennifer Jones as his mark, Lisolette Mueller. There are also notable minor roles for Robert Vaughn as Senator Gary Parker, Robert Wagner is Duncan’s head of PR, Dan Bigelow and O.J. Simpson as the head of security, Harry Jernigan.
But, it’s only when Steve McQueen appears, as the dour and indomitable fire chief Michael O’Hallorhan, that the tension and drama really starts to take off. McQueen is extraordinary in this role, creating a template for the “man of few words” action hero we so often see in contemporary films. From this point on there really isn’t a lot of story. The characters are forced to react to an escalating series of threats and challenges, as the tension steadily builds, leading to an epic and memorable conclusion.
Adapted from two novels (The Tower and The Glass Inferno), with two directors (Guillermin directed most of the this film with Irwin Allen directing the action sequences) and produced by a collaboration of two studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros), The Towering Inferno is famous for the way it credited its two lead actors. Both Newman and McQueen wanted top billing. A compromise was reached where both received the same pay and number of lines and while McQueen’s name appeared first in the credits and poster, Newman’s name appeared higher so, depending on how the diagonal billing was read, one or another actor appeared to have the top spot.
I managed to catch The Towering Inferno on the big screen and there is no question, when seen this way, the film stands up well. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno changed the face of action-disaster films. The Towering Inferno uses, in a quite wonderful fashion, many of the tropes and devices common in this genre. And, for its time, the film has a surprising sense of action, pace and peril (helped by one of John William’s best scores). A contemporary viewer cannot help but see the way this film has informed and influenced countless action films that followed. And, in McQueen and Newman’s performances, we have two contrasting and excellent styles of action film heroes.