Thursday, November 8, 2012

Short Take: The Towering Inferno

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974) is the most prominent of the 1970s wave of Hollywood disaster movies. Much of it is fairly cheesy, but it's still a reasonably diverting time-killer. The silliness actually contributes to the entertainment value. The setting is San Francisco, on the day of the dedication of the world’s tallest building. (Yes, the movie would have one believe this skyscraper would actually be built in that notoriously earthquake-prone city.) The architect (Paul Newman) discovers that his specifications have been replaced with sub-par materials. The dedication ceremony and VIP party go forward that evening, but unbeknownst to everyone an electrical short has set off a small fire in a mid-building storage room. After the party has moved to the restaurant atop the building, the fire spreads and traps them. The film follows the man-of-action architect and the firefighters in their efforts to rescue the partygoers and various others. The all-star cast is a mixed bag. As banal as Paul Newman's part is, he plays it with conviction, and there’s no doubting why he and Faye Dunaway, who plays his girlfriend, were among the most glamorous movie stars of the 1970s. (Dunaway isn’t used for much beyond decoration, but she's such an elegant sight that it seems petty to complain.) Steve McQueen co-stars as the head firefighter, but his trademark cool is unfortunately indistinguishable from boredom. William Holden, who plays the building’s owner, probably gives the film’s best performance; he makes the viewer feel his desire to keep up appearances while wrestling with guilt over the unfolding tragedy. After Holden, the most accomplished work is from Fred Astaire, who delivers a graceful turn as an aging con man. But Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Vaughn make it quite clear why they were never able to make the jump from TV success to big-screen stardom. They’re bland, one-note performers: polished, but without much dynamism or wit. Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, and others do little more than walk through. Stirling Silliphant is credited with the script, which is formulaic in the manner of ‘70s TV adventure shows. The dialogue is especially terrible. Irwin Allen directed the fairly impressive action scenes, and John Guillermin directed everything else. Guillermin’s work isn’t imaginative by any means, but he moves things along at a good clip. The film runs two hours and forty minutes, but the length never feels oppressive. And when things slow down too much, one can always have a chuckle over the characteristic awfulness of the ‘70s fashions: the picture is a treasure trove of dreadful clothes, ugly hairstyles, and eyesore interior decoration. The film is based on two novels: The Tower, by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno, by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Fred J. Koenekamp handled the cinematography for the scenes John Guillerman directed; Joseph F. Biroc shot those overseen by Irwin Allen.

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