In a number of my write-ups I have maintained that I follow the 1001 list not because it features the 1001 best films of all time, but because it gives an interesting cross-section of cinematic history. With recent watches of Ugetsu Monogatari and The Wages of Fear I have been neglecting the less… critically loved films on this list.
Yes. I know that The Towering Inferno was the highest grossing film of 1974, won 2 Oscar and even got a nomination for Best Picture. However, let’s remember that Suicide Squad became an Oscar winning film this year and films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have gained Best Picture nominations. The system ain’t perfect.
So yes, the reason that The Towering Inferno made it’s way onto the list is because it is seen as the best example of the disaster movie craze of the 1970s (other examples including Airport and The Poseidon Adventure). They are the movies that Airplane! was pastiching to such a successful extent that it is still hilarious without having seen any movie it’s referring to.
The basic premise of The Towering Inferno is simple: corners have been cut in the building of a super-tall skyscraper (this building in the film is so tall that, in reality, the first real world building to surpass it was the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) a fire breaks out and disaster ensues.
The amount of death in this film is so gratuitous that by the end they say 200 people have died and you can kinda believe it. As someone who still gets upset at the thought of the plane crash scene in Die Hard 2 it takes a lot to desensitise me to the deaths of innocent people in the film.
There is a bit in The Towering Inferno where a whole lift full of panicking people are basically flambed and I, true to form, got upset at the very idea. By the end of the film I felt a bit more blase about the death count – mainly because of the ridiculous manikins and models used to depict people falling to their death. Some of them were just stupid and actually helped to make this film fun again. Still don’t like the lift scene though. That’s a nope.
On the whole The Towering Inferno is a good film if you are in the need of a brainless afternoon. It’s actually worth it to see Fred Astaire (seriously, why the hell did he agree to be in this film) show the kids how it’s done. Only Paul Newman (as the angry architect) is able to hold some sort of candle to Astaire in this orgy of fiery death.
I know that Steve McQueen shared top billing with Paul Newman and, rather famously, insisted on having the exact same number of lines as Newman… but I honestly didn’t notice him at all. I’ve seen him in films before, but his scenes just blew by me completely until an explosion got my attention again.
So yes, as a part of cinema history or as a film to watch on a slow afternoon The Towering Inferno is a good pick. It’s not great, but it’s a good enough diversion.