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The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno

By Patrick Samuel • December 31st, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
20th Century Fox

Original release: December 14th, 1974
Running time: 165 minutes

Director: John Guillermin
Writers: Stirling Silliphant, Richard Martin Stern, Thomas N. Scortia, Frank M. Robinson
Composer: John Williams

Cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner

The Towering Inferno

Fire. The most destructive force known to us, and yet without it, what would exist? It can turn wood to ash, steel into molten rivers and leave nothing in its path but a trail of devastation and awe for its overwhelming power and graceful beauty. Like many children, I was fascinated by it, and I took every opportunity I got to strike a few matches and throw them on the ground, marveling at what I’d created. However, when I once set the living room sofa alight with one carelessly dropped lit match, that was the end of my little arson adventures, but I guess somehow, the ability to be left in awe at the sight of fire doing what it does best has never left me.

Perhaps that’s partly down to seeing The Towering Inferno when I was at a young age. While it made me aware of just how powerful fire can be, it was also the kind of film that left me breathless with its action, danger and thrilling scenes. Its story is based on two different novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.

Written for the screen by Stirling Silliphant, directed by John Guillermin and produced by Irwin Allen on the back of the success of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the film that effectively launched the disaster film genre, The Towering Inferno sees Paul Newman playing Doug Roberts, an architect who’s in San Francisco for the dedication of the Glass Tower, which he designed for owner James Duncan (William Holden). The tower stands at 1,800 feet with its 138 floors, making it the world’s tallest building (24 feet higher than the new World Trade Center tower).

The Towering Inferno

With this being a disaster film, or what we’ve come to know as a disaster film, it’s not long before something goes awry. This happens early on when we see an electrical short causing a fire on the 81st floor that goes undetected. Meanwhile, Doug accuses the building’s electrical engineer, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), of cutting corners, though he denies this. Later on during the dedication ceremony, public relations chief Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) turns on all of the tower’s exterior lights but it overloads the electrical system and eventually someone realizes there’s smoke on the 81st floor. That’s when the San Francisco Fire Department arrive but they’re in no way prepared to deal with the mammoth fire they soon encounter.

Of course, Roger remains dismissive of the whole thing and refuses to evacuate the building until SFFD Chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) forces him to. This delay in the evacuation, together with the admission that corners were cut to stay on budget, ends up costing lives as fire continues to tear through the tower, floor by floor. Some guests try to escape by using an elevator, but they’re engulfed by flames when they stop at the wrong floor. With fire spreading from the 87th floor down as far at the 65th, and with gas lines exploding and an electrical power failure causing further complications, it becomes clear the tower and its guests are serious trouble.

During the fight for survival in The Towering Inferno we see courage, selflessness, greed and cowardice in epic proportions. Its huge cast of impossibly famous and iconic actors The Towering Infernoit an absolute joy to watch as well. Where else would you see stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden and Fred Astaire sharing screen time together? The writing remains focused on the story and though there are subplots, it never detracts from the overall event that’s taking place – the fire.

One of the most interesting dialogues that occur in the film surrounds whether or not the tower will fall as a result of the fire, and they try to calculate which direction it would fall in during the event of a collapse. Yes, it does make me think of the fires in the World Trade Center now when I watch it, but as we know, no steel structures have ever collapsed due to fires, not even on September 11th. Despite what the 9/11 Commission Report says.

On its own though, The Towering Inferno remains my all-time favourite disaster film, not just for its cast or splendid screen adaptation, but also for the way it questions how such high-rise structures should be built in the future. This, together with its action-packed sequences and dramatic score by the legendary John Williams, makes it a great movie to curl up with on cold nights, but maybe not by a fire.

The Towering Inferno

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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