a critiQal film review The Towering Inferno (1974)

Plot: Architect Doug Roberts (Newman) returns to San Francisco to find work nearly completed on his skyscraper, only to start to worry as he discovers some faulty wiring. Meanwhile, on the 81st floor, more faulty wiring starts a blaze that slowly begins to spin out of control. The San Francisco Fire Department arrives, but the fire chief (McQueen) isn't sure they will be able to contain it before it seals off any hope of escape for the party guests attending the building's grand opening celebration on the 130th floor.

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  • ...although it has its faults, this film - aided by some decent action heroism from Paul Newman and Steve McQueen - is still worth watching.

Looking for a classic film to review, I started browsing NetFlix® Instant Queue, and almost immediately ran across The Towering Inferno. Looking into it, I realized this has quite the stellar cast, with not only Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, but Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn and even Faye Dunaway counted among it’s stars.

Not only would I be able to see Newman in something before he reached his golden years – and Faye in something that wasn’t a comedy – The Towering Inferno would also be my first Steve McQueen film. Would I discover there is a reason why The Towering Inferno was such a praised film, or would time have done too much damage to this classic?

When first introduced, Paul Newman’s character really isn’t that interesting. Paul just doesn’t seem that good in his early interactions with Richard Chamberlain and especially Faye Dunaway (their passionless, utterly fake-looking kisses leave the viewer despairing about the film almost from the word go). But, once the fire starts up and he finds himself caught up in it, the Newman viewers have come to know over the years really starts to shine through. He’s at his best in The Towering Inferno as the hero, rushing to save everyone he can, while seeming to maintain a show of bravado for those around him.

Steve McQueen, on the other hand, only pops up when the action starts to get going, and so doesn’t have to worry about the silly little introduction period to mar his character. He’s what one would hope for in a fire chief – brave and dedicated, showing caring for the men he commands while at the same time knowing he may have to sacrifice some to save the innocents trapped above.

The rest of the cast doesn’t really stand out, aside from Fred Astaire. Despite looking incredibly aged, he still manages a near palpable air of young love whenever he’s around his (much younger) sweetheart. Robert Wagner also turns in a decent performance, but the rest – including Richard Chamberlain’s ridiculous “bad guy” performance – are mere throwaways, filling up time but quickly forgotten.

Thankfully, once The Towering Inferno gets past it’s rather pedantic introduction phase, the action really starts heating up. Newman and, to a lesser extent, McQueen, really come into their own as the action flames on. Newman, especially, takes the film and runs with it, providing the action hero for this disaster film with ease. The tension slowly ratchets higher throughout the picture. As the party guests find themselves more and more cut-off from any hope of escape and Newman continues to make his perilous journey through a building that is gradually becoming more engulfed with flames – the film seems to keep getting better and better. It all builds to a crescendo…that seems to last just a bit too long.

Surprisingly, the multitude of special effects seem just as spectacular today as they must have in 1974, and the viewer never once gets the feeling that the building isn’t actually on fire, and lives aren’t really in danger. It’s superb, and while later films have managed to film fire so vividly the viewer almost thinks it’s alive (Backdraft (1991) for one), The Towering Inferno does a great job, considering.

With solid special effects that have stood the test of time, a director that isn’t afraid to surprise the viewer with an unexpected death every now and then, and tension that manages to last over 2 hours straight, plus some decent action heroism from Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, The Towering Inferno is definitely worth watching. And that’s even though it’s introductory sequences leave a lot to be desired (and the pre-set romantic entanglements are badly mishandled for the most part throughout the film).

Of course, watching The Towering Inferno these days is a bit different. It gives whole new heights of tension to the film, as the viewer’s thoughts can’t help but wind back to the World Trade Center Towers and that fateful day in 2001. Especially when Steve McQueen predicts “someday, thousands of people will die in one of these things” as the film winds down. Of course, he meant fire caused by poor building construction like the blaze in The Towering Inferno, but, nowadays, it comes across as a rather eerie portent of the sad events that were still 27 years away.

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