Considered by many to be quite possibly the greatest disaster picture ever made, The Towering Inferno followed (and transcended) the success of The Poseidon Adventure, becoming the gold standard of the genre. For its efforts, the Irwin Allen-produced film scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and become the highest-grossing film of 1974.
The Towering Inferno was so epic in its catastrophic proportions that it was based on not one, but two novels, The Tower (by Richard Martin Stern) and The Glass Inferno (by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson), whose titles were combined to give the film its name. Both novels were inspired by the construction of the then newly-built World Trade Center towers, though some speculate that the concept came from a pair of skyscraper fires in São Paulo, Brazil in the early 70s. And ironically, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox owned the rights to both novels, respectively. In order to prevent two similar films from being made at the same time, the productions were combined thanks to curiously-named screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. It was the first time in history two major studios combined to make a picture.
Architect Doug Roberts (Newman) returns from a relaxing vacation to find work nearing completion on the Glass Tower, a skyscraper that he designed. When he goes to a party being held on the one hundred and thirty-fifth floor, he discovers that several shortcuts were taken in its construction, the most alarming of which have led to faulty wiring. Sure enough, a spark gets things going in a janitor’s closet and the blaze is on.
Chief O’Hallorhan (McQueen) arrives with his firefighters (including Newman’s real-life son Scott, shortly before his untimely death). The party tries to stay one step ahead of the fire as O’Hallorhan and Roberts struggle to battle the blaze from outside and inside, respectively. The only answer lies in a series of daring rescue attempts and, if those fail, the detonation of water tanks on the roof that will douse the tops floors with over seven thousand gallons of water — and possibly kill any survivors.
Unlike the faulty wiring in the Glass Tower, few expenses were spared in making The Towering Inferno. Fifty-seven sets were built for the fourteen million dollar production, of which only eight survived the shoot. Megastars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman headlined an all-star cast that included Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, O.J. Simpson, Dabney Coleman, Shelley Winters, Robert Vaughn, and even Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland.
The Towering Inferno set the standard for disaster epics for years to come, not just in terms of scope, but cast and culture as well. Though other disaster films of greater proportion would follow (Volcano, Earthquake, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow), none have managed to achieve either the notoriety or the popularity of this classic suspense story.
Do you count yourself among the numerous fans of The Towering Inferno? If so, we’d love to hear your recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this incendiary 70s film.