USA / Twentieth Century Fox – Warner / 165 minutes / 1974
Writer: Stirling Silliphant from novels by Richard Martin Stern (The Tower) and Thomas N Scortia (The Glass Inferno) / Music: John Williams / Special Effects: Bill Abbott / Production Design: William Creber / Cinematography: Fred Koenenkamp / Producer: Irwin Allen / Directors: Irwin Allen, John Guillermin
Cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O J Simpson
The 70s was the decade of disaster films, as special effects reached new heights but CGI was but a gleam in the eye of a computer expert. If you wanted the best, you looked for the name Irwin Allen. The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm behind him, he helmed (with the help of John Guillermin) this spectacular film starring two of Hollywood’s biggest names and with a support cast who would normally top the bill.
When an electrical fault, caused by contractor Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) cost-cutting sets alight a new 135 storey skyscraper, it is, of course, just as a prestigious party is in full swing on the top floor. Fire chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) and the building’s architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) arrive on the scene and have to work out how to douse the fire and save the guests (who include Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones in her last film, Chamberlain, William Holden, Robert Wagner and Robert Vaughn). But the real stars are the blazing skyscraper and the special effects teams who set up the interior mayhem.
The film, a unique collaboration between 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, won Oscars for cinematography, editing and best music and was nominated for nine Oscars in total. Originally, McQueen was to play Newman’s role but he wanted to play the fire chief and also insisted he and Newman had exactly the same number of lines of dialogue and that the posters give them equal billing! The pair were paid $1m each plus 7.5% of the box office – given the film’s success, the b.o. brought them substantially more as the film recovered it’s then staggering $14m costs in weeks. The city the stricken skyscraper is in is never identified and not even the fire crews’ uniforms give it away – they read TIFD on the jackets – Towering Inferno Fire Department, possibly?