The all-star disaster epics of the 1970s were a strange little time capsule, as if the ethical quagmires and pervasive paranoia of the era could only be expressed in blockbusters that trapped a bunch of people in an isolated spot and made sure to shockingly kill off several of the big names every so often. The super-producer of these films was Irwin Allen, and fresh off of throwing a group of stars in a capsized cruise ship in camp classic The Poseidon Adventure, he returns to the template with his “more is better” magnum opus, The Towering Inferno.
Some films are great because of the strength of their plots, their visuals, their acting, or some combination of all of the above. But there’s another group of films that are very good-to-great, and those are the films that are pure entertainment. The Towering Inferno is an expertly made piece of entertainment. A bit too long at three hours, but it still provides a movie that enraptures you with its pounding sense of dread and claustrophobic anti-camp gravitas.
It’s also just a great excuse to watch Paul Newman and Steve McQueen size each other up, old vets like William Holden, Fred Astaire, and Jennifer Jones add gravity to the proceedings, and starlets like Faye Dunaway suffer elegantly in beautiful gowns. We often go to the movies to watch beautiful, charismatic people romance each other, escape from danger, or behave badly, and The Towering Inferno checks all of those boxes. If nothing else, it’s also a underscoring of the idea that a well-known formula executed with conviction and style will always turn up a winner.
There’s a bit of melodrama punctuated by very competent and still thrilling special effects work in its action scenes. You genuinely care about a majority of these characters, either rooting for them to escape or happy to see them meet their demise. While Newman and McQueen are the two leads, and both of them are great in their alternate takes on gruff masculine heroism and sexy, sweaty, it’s the performances of Astaire and Jones that walked away with all of the awards love.
Jones, in her final role, is not a surprise, she was an awards darling during her halcyon days, and she gets a solid little character to play here. She engages in a romance with Astaire, is selflessly heroic and maternally caring while rescuing two kids with Newman, and gets to do some stunt-work before her shocking death by falling out of a broken elevator window. But Astaire as a lovable grifter with a knockout final scene does a sneaky stealing of several scenes, yet his Oscar nomination still feels slightly like a “Lifetime Achievement” concession.
Part of the terror of The Towering Inferno is how brutally realistic it can feel to be trapped inside of a burning skyscraper. Part of this success is in how this is a disaster movie with plenty of real world parallels and enough realistic special effects work to unnerve. Yet it’s a tightly controlled narrative with predictable beats, the mid-section of the film does seem to repeat far too much, and a sprinkling of shocks to make you sit up and take notice. That miniature work holds up well, as does the real sense that these are the actual stars dangerously close to the uncontrollable (and hungry) flames. The fires of this film demand a sacrifice (or several) for man’s hubris.