By Marc S. Sanders
The kid who played Bobby Brady of TV’s The Brady Bunch and Gregory Sierra (Julio from Sanford and Son) star alongside OJ Simpson and an Oscar nominated performance from Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno. This is one of the best films to be churned out of the Irwin Allen disaster machine of 1970s movie making.
William Holden is the proud builder of a beautiful new skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. Paul Newman is the sensible architect who manages to acknowledge what’s wrong the construction of the building. Namely, a jerky Richard Chamberlain, as the building’s electrician, opted for faulty, less expensive wiring that conveniently overheats on the eve of the building’s grand celebration that includes a Senator (Robert Vaughn) and the Mayor with his wife in a loud, baggy Pepto Bismol colored dress. Seriously, it’s never hard to make this woman out among a sea of formally dressed extras who are celebrating on the grand opening located on the building’s promenade floor. Floor number 135 to be more precise. Because it’s so high up, we are treated to a scenic, outside elevator that’ll eventually not make it to the ground allowing a couple of screaming extras to be held in treacherous suspense. Good stuff here, for sure.
Steve McQueen’s coolness eventually arrives as the main fire chief leading the high rise charge against the blazes. His Thomas Crown Affair co-star, Faye Dunaway, is here to cue the romantic rhythms of John Williams’ score, and to hop into bed with Newman for some afternoon delight.
The story is that Newman and McQueen were at odds for who was getting top billing. Watch the very beginning of the film for the inventive compromise for the name placement in the credits.
The real stars of this who’s who cast are the special effects. Now I truly mean this. Nearly fifty years later, and the visual effects of the massive fires, explosions, helicopter sequences, and enormous heights still hold up. There’s lots of good footage that burns up, crushes, floods and drops a handful of extras for a fast paced three-hour epic disaster flick.
Astaire might have been the sole acting nominee but I just can’t get over how the debonair, prime for a Love Boat appearance with no hair out of place Robert Wagner didn’t get any recognition. This man puts just a damp washcloth on his head, promises his half naked sweetie that he’ll “be back with the whole fire department,” and sprints straight into the flames for the grandest death scene in film history. It’s a glorious scene for sure when Wagner buys it. I cheer every time I see it. The dude just face plants into the flames. Doesn’t even bend down or kneel to pray. This guy just topples over like a Jenga tower, with the washcloth remaining on his head.
The Towering Inferno amazingly did not beat out The Godfather Part II for Best Picture. I know. I’m stunned as well, reader. Uh huh! Nevertheless, it’s still worth a watch all these years later. If anything, you get to see some pretty eye-popping visual effects and action scenes directed personally by Irwin Allen. You also get to familiarize yourself with the best talent in Hollywood that was working at the time. There are also lots of great moments amid the soapy cheesiness of the script.
Most of all, and this is where I finally get sincere, it’s a film that does not make light of our country’s firefighters who continue to risk their lives everyday so that any one of us can survive. Not enough films embrace the proud men and women who stand between us and danger. The Towering Inferno salutes that immeasurable bravery.