Still from 1974's "The Towering Inferno."

These pictures are not much more than a long series of unfortunate events. For hours upon hours do we witness terrified characters attempt to overcome whatever calamity is hurled at them. Most don’t survive. 

 

Sometimes such excursions can be entertaining: The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was a nerve-wracking, masterfully scary exploit, working mostly because it stuck with the journey of a single group and watched them try to make it to the end of the movie alive. It also understood that it was essentially a cheap thrill given a big budget. It didn’t try to be more than it was. 

 

But in most cases are disaster movies slightly — and disconcertingly — torture porny. Are we really expected to be diverted watching many perfectly nice people die, watching so many feel relief for a couple moments only to throw another hurdle toward them when their guard’s down? There’s an unsettling sort of glee that underscores the genre, as if the makers get off on devising new ways to kill off, or at least injure and dirty, top actors. 

 

“The picture practically stops for us to say, ‘Yummy, that’s a good one!’” Pauline Kael wrote of The Towering Inferno for The New Yorker in 1974. And she’s not wrong: While Airport and Poseidon were agreeably hokey and fortunately not all that aspirational, The Towering Inferno, nearing three hours, puts all its drive into its special effects (which do regularly astonish) and its need to make us want to exasperatedly shout “now what?” every couple minutes. But it's too eager to please. 

 

As a repercussion of being infatuated with setting various objects and people alight, glass shattered and fire hoses drained once in a while to cleanse our palates, its creators, here director John Guillermin, producer Allen, and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, forget to make a movie able to hold our attention for more than two minutes at a time. Its characters are written only in clichés — even one-off mouth pieces in an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-64) have more depth — and when the explosions do briefly let up from time to time, mawkish, blandly melodramatic subplots (mostly romances Roy Lichtenstein might have lapped up) burgeon. The movie is a connect-the-dot sheet of soap opera tropes, hoping to get away with such unoriginality with an incendiary backdrop.

 

Which isn’t very interesting, no matter how many of Hollywood’s most bankable stars are involved. For two hours and 45 minutes, we watch in horror as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 138-story, San Francisco-based Glass Tower, is victimized by faulty wiring upon its unveiling to the public, thus turning into the world’s tallest fire hazard. (Entire floors explode every 10 minutes or so to remind us what a bad idea building this piece of property was.) Its falling apart made more tragic due to its occurring during a cocktail party involving the biggest names in the city, hundreds will die by the time the movie concludes. 

 

This is, without question, the most unsuccessful grand opening ever seen in any major American city. I’d even like to get started objecting to the fact that a high-rise so tall would ever be placed at the center of the not very metropolitan San Francisco, that poor construction would not be noticed by the time the public would be allowed to set foot into the building, or even that the movie’s finale contains the weird take-home message that we should really be careful the next time we think about erecting a gigantic tower at such a location. 

 

Plenty of important actors get to experience this cinematic holocaust. Paul Newman is the architect who discovers upon the eve of the party that the tower’s builder, William Holden, employed his corner-cutting son-in-law to hire ill-equipped electricians when budgets went over. Faye Dunaway, looking like a goddess in a Lindor truffle commercial, is Newman’s girl. Fred Astaire is a con artist trying to seduce Jennifer Jones. Steve McQueen is the thoughtful fire chief. Even O.J. Simpson gets his time to shine as a security officer whose utmost heroic effort is saving a kitty from the carnage. But all are wasted — they’d be given more compelling things to during a guest spot in an episode of Charlie’s Angels (1976-81).

 

But I'd prefer an unsatisfactory episode of Charlie’s Angels to the fat, boring The Towering Inferno. Various factors lead me to such a conclusion, most prominently the way the aforementioned TV show’s actors at least have something of a personality, and the way a 40-minute episode is always so much more pleasurable than a three-hour movie that only needs to be two. The disaster movie genre would lose its luster a short time after The Towering Inferno’s release, with duds like The Cassandra Crossing (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) helping disintegrate audience interest in the genre. Good. C

DIRECTED BY

John Guillermin

 

STARRING

Paul Newman

Steve McQueen

Faye Dunaway

William Holden

Fred Astaire

Jennifer Jones

Susan Blakely

Richard Chamberlain

Robert Vaughn

Robert Wagner

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1974

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 44 Mins.

The Towering Inferno September 9, 2017        

as the behemoth popularity of the 1970s disaster movie the result of audiences suddenly developing a fetish for seeing their favorite celebrities die (or at least curb death) in spectacular ways? Science cannot back the root of the strange phenomenon, but the cinematic zeitgeist of 40-plus years ago makes the theory seem plausible. Consider: time and time again would the Michael Bay of the decade, Irwin Allen, bring large, impressive ensemble casts together to face gargantuan, man-made disasters to match the successes of the bloated Airport films (1970-1979).

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Dependably, overpaid talents were pitted against unthinkable catastrophes, such as an overturned cruise ship, a collapsing high-rise, and even a vengeful swarm of bees. Audiences would flock to witness the spectacle.