Are you prepared?
The seventies were a weird time in Hollywood. Studios were operating on tighter budgets, so the high output of a couple of decades earlier was unheard of. Instead, studios opted for fewer films with big ensemble casts and higher octane production values, and one of these was 1974’s The Towering Inferno. Like many films of the decade, its raison d’être is looming disaster with no apparent escape, only this time one-hundred thirty-eight floors of peril stand between the characters and salvation. It was an incredibly popular movie in 1974 and it still enthralls today, albeit for the most part.
The brand new Glass Building in San Francisco is a marvel. Eighty-one floors of offices, and forty floors above that are all residences. It has a fabulous restaurant on the one-hundred thirty-first floor, decorated in trendy orange, avocado, and gold, of course, with green shag carpeting. The office floors are pretty stereotypical, with “I need to get a letter out,” being code for a booty call, and executives having swanky apartments conveniently located right off their offices.
One of them belongs to the Glass Building’s architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who wants to leave behind city life and move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Developer James Duncan (William Holden) of Duncan Enterprises tries to convince him to stay because this tower could be the beginning of even bigger things, but Doug isn’t budging. He’ll stay long enough for the launch party, but after that he’s outta there. He’d like his gorgeous girlfriend, Susan (Faye Dunaway) to go with him, but she just got promoted to managing editor of her paper, so she can’t think about leaving, although she wants to.
The tenants, whose apartments look as if they’ve been comfortably lived in for ten years, are already like best friends. One of them, Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) gives art lessons to a little girl, Angela Allbright (Carlena Gower), whose mother is deaf. Angela’s brother, Phillip (Mike Lookinland) is an average preteen who never takes his headphones off.
Everyone is abuzz about the launch party, which will host local glitterati, including Mayor Ramsey (Jack Collins) and his wife, Paula (Shiela Allen), and Senator Parker (Robert Vaughn). Also on the way is Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire), a nice gent who just flew in from the south of France, or so he says. He’s Lisolette’s date for the evening, and after she leaves some milk for her cat, she and Harlee are off to the restaurant.
However, there’s trouble brewing because of course there is. Doug is angry with the electrician, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) because the building has wiring problems. He corners Simmons at his palatial Pacific Heights house and tries to confront him about the impending danger, but Simmons laughs it off. So does James at the party when Doug tells him what’s going on. Nah, they don’t need to evacuate. They’re all safe.
James changes his tune pretty quickly, though, because a storage room fire no one knows about spreads to the rest of the building. Trying not to cause panic, James gathers the party together and tells them the situation. A few of them manage to get out via the inside elevator, but it’s a very temporary solution.
Lisolette goes down to let the Allbrights know about the fire and finds it’s already spread. Fortunately, Doug is with her, and he helps get them out. The mother is unconscious and has to be taken out via stretcher, but the kids stay with Lisolette, and they have to take the stairwell with Doug. Except for a gas main exploding, this seems like it would be a good situation. For some reason the group goes up to the lounge instead of down to the street, but hey, technicalities.
Into the fray comes Brigadier Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who has to figure out how to avert the Glass Building Apocalypse, and from there the movie becomes a long series of throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.
As is typical, “women and children first” is the order of the day. They try evacuating people via the scenic elevator, but an explosion has it hanging by a cable and a helicopter has to come help lower the poor beleagured passengers enough to jump into the giant inflatable air cushion. Then a chair is set up on a breeches buoy and saves a number of people, but that’s another temporary solution.
Simmons is a huge pest, demanding he be the first of the men to take the chair once the women are gone. He’s J. Bruce Ismay with a ruffly tux. James finally belts him, which feels oh, so good, and Simmons barrels off to meet his fate. No one misses him except for his wife, and she was about to divorce him anyway.
Wow. This movie is pretty gripping, and it ticks all the disaster film boxes. It also ticks all the 1970s decor boxes, because the look and feel of the film is solidly entrenched in the decade. The men wear ruffly tuxes, many of the women have Farrah Fawcett hair. Every communal space in the building is done in orange, avocado, and gold, and lots of the apartments have that ubiquitous fake wood-grain paneling. They even have a giant macrame wall hanging in the lobby that somehow stays perfect despite all the smoke and mess of the huge fire.
Speaking of which, there are a lot of people who catch fire, and some who jump from the burning building. It must have been uncomfortable to see in 1974, but in 2020 it gives me unpleasant 9-11 flashbacks.
Apparently there’s some truth to that. The film was based on two novels: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno by Thomas M. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. The former novel centered on a giant skyscraper built in Lower Manhattan that was threatened by a fire, while the latter is the story of a multi-use skyscraper with electrical problems. Creepily and ironically enough, it’s said that The Tower was inspired by the building of the World Trade Center.
Also ironic is that several months before the film released, there was a fire in the Joelma Building in São Paolo, Brazil, that saw residents cut off from escape and resorting to desperate measures.
When The Towering Inferno was released in December of 1974, of course, no one was thinking about that, because the film was a big hit. What must have made Bay Area people chuckle, including me even though I haven’t lived there in thirty years, is that The Towering Inferno was set in San Francisco to begin with. It’s exactly how San Francisco looked when I first knew it in the late seventies. That hits all the nostalgia feels, because everywhere this movie goes is familiar territory, and it’s full of bits those who are familiar with the Bay Area would pick up on.
Like the Glass Building’s lobby with its distinctive elevators, for instance, was shot at the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero. It’s pretty hard to miss this building because it’s triangular like the Luxor in Vegas, only not like a pyramid. I used to go there with my parents when my dad had to meet business colleagues.
I probably laughed more than I should have when I saw that the one channel they could get to cover this massive building dedication was KQED, the local PBS station, because who better to film something this monumental than the folks who bring us Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and The Polka Dot Door? To be fair, the other stations were probably not interested in lending out their cameras, but still. It’s KQED.
The other, and much bigger thing that might have made Bay Area residents pull funny faces is the size of the tower itself. SF isn’t one for having a lot of mondo skyscrapers due to the earthquakes that periodically hit the area, the obvious reason being physics. As a result the city has some of the strictest building codes of anywhere, and that translates into a moderately high skyline.
In fact, since 1972 the tallest building in the city was the Transamerica Pyramid, which is eight-hundred fifty-three feet tall and forty-eight floors. It was recently dethroned by the Salesforce Tower, which is a thousand seventy feet tall and sixty-one floors, and in case things aren’t exciting enough, it’s built on a landfill that’s known for turning to Jello during major earthquakes. The builders have tried to compensate for this by anchoring the building to pilons buried three hundred feet deep, with a fourteen-foot thick foundation and a concrete core, among other tricks. Here’s hoping it works.
But yeah, back to the movie.
For what it is, The Towering Inferno runs a bit too long. I paused it during one of the characters’ many trips through the stairwell to see where I was at in the film, and there was still an hour to go. It’s exciting, and director Irwin Allen was great at juggling various suspenseful story threads, but a half-hour could have easily been snipped and no one would have noticed.
The character development is also not great, but then again, there are too many characters and not enough time to flesh out everyone, even in an almost-three hour movie. Still, it’s a classic disaster film with a lot of star power. The actors, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in particular, are awesome and make the whole thing believable. The movie has held up fairly well despite being stuck firmly in the seventies. Which, come to think of it, is part of its charm.
For more of the Disaster Blog-a-thon, please see J-Dubs and Quiggy. Thanks for hosting, guys–this was cathartic. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you on Friday, because we’re going to peek into a certain doctor’s cabinet…