|THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)|
|"For what it's worth, architect, this is one building I figured would never burn."|
|Time: 165 mins.|
Won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Song. Nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Score, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Astaire).
I just recently saw THE TOWERING INFERNO for the first time and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was going to be horribly campy with bad acting, but, on the whole, it pretty much stands the test of time. There's a reason this was nominated for so many Academy Awards. It may have a lot of special effects, but it also has good characters and a touching story...unlike most disaster pics. The fact of the matter is, this film, as well as it's predecessor THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, was actually an award-winning film when first released. That has to count for something, doesn't it? It sure as hell shocks me.
The story is as old as time man vs. nature. Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, the architect responsible for the design of the newest, tallest most-advanced high-rise building in San Francisco. He returns to the city after a 2-year sabbatical for the building dedication party. While away he fell in love with life in the country and after an afternoon siesta with lady love Susan (Faye Dunaway), he tries to convince her to move with him. She's unsure if she wants to leave her brand new job for the quiet life, but we all know what her ultimate decision will be after this night. A generator burn out alerts Doug to the fact that the construction company, run by James Duncan (William Holden), skimped on the electrical wiring. He doesn't get a straight answer about the quality of the wiring from Roger (Richard Chamberlain), Duncan's son-in-law, but he knows it was he who changed the specs in his plans.
The reason Doug is so worried is because the emergency systems have yet to be adequately tested and he doesn't want to endanger the lives of the building's tenants. Duncan refuses to push the party back, because he has the Mayor and other dignitaries attending the gala opening and he doesn't want to look bad. Little does he know a fire is already burning on the 94th floor. To make matters worse, none of the safety systems sprinklers, alarms, etc. are actually working. Seeing smoke on a monitor, Jernigan (O.J.), goes to investigate and finds the store room engulfed in flames. The fire department is called, but there's no real way for them to battle a fire that far up. This film is a perfect example of why I live on the first floor and what true heroes firemen are. Captain Michael O'Halloran (Steve McQueen) arrives on the scene and realizes they are not going to win this battle. Working with Doug, they try to contain the fire, but it's already too late. It's burning its way up the tower and there's no way to stop it.
They are able to evacuate most of the people, but the tower, where the party guests are, is quickly cut off. Some of the guests panic and use elevators they are strictly told not to. They don't make it out alive. The firemen try to land a helicopter on the roof, but that plan also goes horribly awry. Doug creates a "gravity bridge" in the circuitry of the scenic elevator. It'll go down, but only once. Twelve women are loaded in and begin their descent to safety. One of them is Susan, who initially refuses to leave Doug's side. He won't hear of it. He'll see her on the ground. They'll decide their future in the morning. Though the building is burning out of control around it, the elevator begins its' harrowing descent. With the help of Captain O'Halloran most of the ladies survive the trip. With the fire completely out of control, there's no time to get everyone out of the building. The ending is a real nail-biter. Their solution to extinguish the flames awesome in scope and execution. A rescue you won't soon forget.
What's cool about this movie is not everyone survives. Some of the actors who were huge then die horrible deaths, which just doesn't happen much anymore. I was honestly surprised that they killed so many people and not in pretty ways. It greatly added to the suspense of the film, showcasing the true danger fighting fires entails. I knew Paul, Faye and Steve would most likely survive, but the rest of the cast was fair game. For the early 70's, the fire effects were pretty cool. No expense was spared and it showed. They really stand up to the years, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. The only aspect really dated about the film was the interior design of the building and the clothes. There's no way you could mistake the decade. Glowing orange walls and chocolate brown shag carpet. Yech.
I've never really thought of Paul Newman as an action hero, but he does a great job here. Intense, righteous and sexy. Dunaway is stunningly smart and cool. She may have the girlfriend role, but she plays it well. Nobody plays gruff like McQueen. He doesn't have much to do, but he adds depth and honesty to his fire chief role. Why Fred Astaire got nominated, I don't understand. He's onscreen for about 15-20 minutes in a role not very relevant to the plot. It's good to be old, if you're trolling for awards. Nevermind, that though he's the best dancer the cinema has to offer, yet was never nominated for an Oscar until he almost gets barbecued. Sure, the voting has nothing to do with favoritism. Surprise guest appearance Mike Lookinland a.k.a Bobby Brady. Very strange to see him out of the Brady household. If you don't believe the TITANIC hype and want a disaster film with heart and guts, check out this movie. It's definitely one of the best of the genre.