Directed by John Guillermin and Irwin Allen
Written by Stirling Silliphant (based on the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson)
1974 was the biggest year of its decade's wave of disaster cinema, I believe by a downright uncompetitive margin; with $333 million in combined box office (well north of $1.7 billion today) just for Hollywood's three big disaster blockbusters, it likely remains the second-biggest year for the genre ever, after the probably-never-going-to-be-topped year of Cameron's Titanic. For '74, Hollywood saved its best—and its biggest—for last, giving over December to The Towering Inferno; and, clearly, "bigness" was the goal. It is such an oversized, even arrogant object, reflecting imperfectly but extremely impressively the very themes upon which its story's been built. It was made by two studios out of two novels by two directors with two editors, two cinematographers, and two rival stars, as well as with two enormous scale models of its titular tower, one sixty feet tall and the other ninety; and indeed, at a full, pulverizing 164 minutes, it at least comes pretty close to encompassing the length of two normal movies. (As for budget, it'd be egregious understatement to say that its pair of studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, spent only two movies' worth of money on it.) It is also very great, I expect the second-best of the 70s disaster cinema cycle, and even critics at the time tended to respect the immensity of its production, even if they often found ways not to respect the film that it brought about. It was producer Irwin Allen's follow-up to the genre's masterpiece, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, and while you can still see how the lessons of that film were perhaps not totally absorbed, as well as how Inferno, armed with its $14 million, dual-studio budget, was obliged to compromise a little tiny bit in ways the $5 million Poseidon was not, it bears so many of the same impulses and so much of the same ethos that it's impossible not to consider the two as an elemental diptych—one about water, the other about fire, one about clawing your way out of hell, the other about falling from heaven, one about the death of God and the other about how we could still fuck up Babel without Him.
They are generally held as the twin lights of their movement, and I am not here to dispute this consensus. Now, I think Poseidon is obviously better, for several little reasons—it's more efficient, it has better cinematography, and it has more imaginative production design—as well as for one big reason—Poseidon is meaner, angrier, and sadder. This is not to say that that Inferno is not mean or angry, let alone sad, just that Poseidon was more willing to acknowledge the void, and not quite as keen to substitute the smug justice of a screenwriter for that of an absent deity. Yet even on this count Inferno stacks its corpses in one pile, good and bad alike; and Inferno captures so much of its predecessor's spirit that it's hard to hold its occasional misstep into repetitive spectacle or shrill moralizing against it.
The story is the result of Allen's brokerage of a peace between the studios that would fund his film; in late 1973, there existed two hit novels about burning skyscrapers, The Tower and The Glass Inferno, and Warners and Fox had found themselves in the embarrassing position of each having paid a few hundred thousand for one of them. Working with Fox to develop The Glass Inferno, Allen proposed that they join forces instead of fight, and it must've seemed like a stroke of genius at the time—it was the first-ever co-production between two majors. For Allen's part, he saw it as opportunity to explode his budget beyond anything Fox alone would've given him, and with Poseidon's success to back him up, neither studio saw fit to complain about Allen's $12 million ask even when it ballooned during production by another two. Allen tapped his main guy, Stirling Silliphant, to smoosh the two novels together, which is exactly what Sillphant did—streamlining and combining to the point that it was neither Tower nor Inferno but both.
That story, then, concerns architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), returning to San Francisco to attend the dedication of the grandest project of his career, the Glass Tower, a 138-story skyscraper that surely must be the tallest building on the face of the planet, though for whatever reason this landmark achievement is not emphasized. This does not mean its builder, James Duncan (William Holden), is not proud of his work, and tonight he intends to wine and dine a gala crowd on the top floor of his building, with Roberts as his guest of honor. To mark the occasion, he has every light in the building turned on all at once, and this shall expose the horrid vulnerability in the tower's construction: wiring that is technically up to code, as affirmed by Duncan's venal son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), but is a good $2 million worth of copper short for the real needs of the building. As soon as Roberts discovers that his design has been perverted he flies about the tower trying to get ahead of the situation, realizing—moments too late—that what he's really helped build is a 138-floor deathtrap. By the time the fire department arrives, a small fire on the 81st floor has already begun to spread. Duncan wastes valuable minutes minimizing the danger; it takes the personal intervention of Battalion Chief Michael O'Halloran (Steve McQueen) to even get the builder to make an announcement, let alone start shepherding his guests to safety. And by now it really is too late, as the celebrants learn to their horror when the first batch of evacuees is overtaken by the fire, and as the express elevator returns, only one man survives long enough to even stagger his way out before he pitches over and dies, leaving his smoldering corpse as a reminder that, unless O'Halloran and Roberts can save them, they all shall burn.
It is, of course, a great deal more complicated than that, and Inferno sprawls more than Poseidon did, electing to use the greater degrees of freedom offered by hundreds in a burning building, as opposed to a small group in an overturned ship, to allow its subplots to go unpruned. This is probably the thing people like least about Inferno, given that it's the main reason it manages that 164 minute runtime. They're mostly good and functional subplots, however, involving a diverse buffet of actors—Robert Vaughn as a bigshot senator, O.J. Simpson as the Tower's security chief, Faye Dunaway as Roberts's girlfriend, Susan Blakely as Simmons's unhappy wife, Jennifer Jones as an old widow (and yes, it's 1974, so the poster does bill its female characters as "girlfriend, " "wife," and "widow," respectively, even when the former and latter have actual jobs), and, of course, there's Fred Astaire as the conman aiming to con Jones, and regretting it in the face of death, and who dances for fifteen seconds, thereby reminding Hollywood that he still existed, and hence, like Shelley Winters before him, he might be willing to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (He did not win.) Naturally, these subplots intersect all over the place, though the film is obviously anchored by its two stars, each leading their own mini-movie that, from time to time, also intersects.
Inferno is well-remembered for this behind-the-scenes clash of blue-eyed screen titans, their competing egos leading to the innovation of diagonal billing, and, at its pettiest, prompting McQueen to count the number of words Newman spoke and demanding parity, even though McQueen's character doesn't even show up for an hour. (It's weirder still when you remember that the guy asking for "more lines" was Steve McQueen, whose whole deal was terse stoicism.) It's worth mentioning: this is not even slightly noticeable in the final product. It probably helped that Newman reportedly barely gave a shit—this seems to have piqued McQueen even more, although they wound up liking each other in the end—and even in their very first exchange, Silliphant's screenplay takes McQueen's fireman's undisguised hostility and judos it, with Newman playing his architect as any intelligent human being in the same situation would invariably act, that is, largely deferential to the first responder and eager to offer whatever help he can. (Though they debate tactics, there is never an argument between the two men, and while I indeed suspect this was because Silliphant was obliged to avoid any scene where one of them would dominate the other, it winds up being an enormous boon: we get the rare jewel of a disaster film where its two masculine figures get to complement one another, instead of going for each other's throats. I even love Hackman and Borgnine's shouting matches on the Poseidon, but Inferno is much more grown-up about it—which, I agree, is ironic.)
Both are good performances, though ultimately McQueen does get the better of things—probably because O'Halloran is given the more grounded, realistic things to do (well, for the most part), while Roberts is sent to and fro throughout the tower like a rat in a burning maze—and McQueen does a fantastic job of modulating his one-dimensional character so that he seems vastly more rounded than he is, with O'Halloran's rudeness revealing itself quickly as mere brusqueness, his jaded demeanor barely concealing a compassionate firefighter, exuding even-keeled authority so that, even when he's being insulting, it never comes off as personal. Indeed, in some ways, he seems to get gentler as the fire burns, his men die, and he endures ever greater hardships. McQueen spent time fighting fires with real firemen to prepare, which seems like a stunt to preen his image, but let's be charitable, and concede he never quite stopped being blue-collar at heart; either way, the experience served him well here. Meanwhile, Newman gets the showier performance: he has the character whose existence isn't necessarily coterminous with the movie, and it's Roberts who enunciates the film's themes the most clearly, frequently railing against Duncan and Simmons for their hubris and shortsighted greed.
Anyway, like I said, complicated, and one of Inferno's finer qualities is bound up in that runtime in a different way—not so much because of the number of storylines, but the sheer amount of story overall, giving the film an exhilarating but exhausting mood, with the complexion of a war fought by wave after wave of firefighters and a few civilian auxiliaries that grinds its participants down in hour after hour of combat, which is why McQueen's performance is the one most central to its success. But it also wouldn't do without those loose ends and flyaway characters (not intended as a pun, but...), and even though it has all the Aristotlean unities and everything—ooh, time, setting, and action—it is maybe the disaster film that best encompasses the sense of the epic.
What annoys me, then, is that Inferno is almost always treated as craftless spectacle, just a collection of scenes of fire jammed against each other, an impression assisted by the brute facts of Allen's assembly-line production methods and his reluctant employment of director John Guillermin, who was hired on almost just to lead one unit out of several, and also to mollify the studios, who really did not want Allen to direct it himself (going by some of his earlier directorial efforts, I can see why), and who compromised by allowing him to direct the action scenes. Frankly, I do not know what this means; what the hell is an "action scene" in the context of a film where half the shots feature either visual effects or a set (or person) that is literally on fire? I think it would take an archival historian to reconstruct who did what, and it might well be fairer to call it a true collaboration, particularly as Allen's visual sensibility is often reflected even in the non-"action" scenes—arguably moreso than Guillermin's, though I cannot speak authoritatively on that—but now channeled toward extremely narratively and emotionally productive ends, with a lot of scenes playing out in master shots, particularly toward the beginning, as a fire burns and nobody notices. This first hour is actually a surpassingly strong employment of all the filmmaking arts, and the galling assumption that Inferno is the kind of movie where you turn your brain off and enjoy the ride is, I think, the reason the constant and deliberate choices get overlooked, starting with the pair of non-sequential shots of Paul Newman riding in a helicopter to his building—the first with a smile, the second with a far more ambivalent expression—and continuing straight through the first act, as the camera settles on lower-than-necessary angles and even-wider-than-usual Panavision compositions that trap the characters inside rooms that are too big yet somehow too closed off, filled with inhumane geometric complexities that seem to exist entirely for their own sake rather than anything that might've been useful for their inhabitants. Designer William Creber, returning from Poseidon, does not get to work with the insane nightmare logic of an upside-down cruise liner here, but he does a lot that's scarcely more subtle, defining the interiors of the Glass Tower by their ultimate fate, planting unmissable blocks of yellows and oranges in almost every frame—if it's remotely subtle, it's only because in 1974, such decor was actually plausible—and it makes the flames that will soon swallow these sets incipient from the very moment we lay eyes on them.
And this keeps Inferno a very watchable, tense experience—the frequent cutaways to the actual fire help, obviously—even as it unavoidably spends the first third of almost three hours setting up its numerous characters and situations. But of course it is also that spectacle, and it is an immense and persuasive spectacle—very rarely does it exceed its grasp visually, and, hell, for the most part it is very real, very tangible fire that we're dealing with, which is partly why the cinematography seems to improve once the building's aflame. (It also involves real water in the climax, though it handles this less well, with several stuntmen rather plainly flinging themselves out of windows, rather than being carried. That climax also has a weird "Jesus, we could've done this the entire time, couldn't we?" quality that Silliphant elects not to stress in his screenplay.) Still: given the sheer naked reality of the destruction, Inferno's back half (and Allen's direction, if that's what it is) is necessarily a little less artful overall, but only on average. Inferno manages numerous fascinatingly dreamlike images in the midst of its realistic devastation—the almost abstract lines of dozens of hoses laid out across the plaza like the sprawling roots of a jungle; the uncanny shot of Newman stepping through smoke into an ebon void; the undeniably-physical but almost op-art tangle of an emergency stairwell blasted into spaghetti, which our heroes must nonetheless navigate if they are to survive—but above all it's about the implacability of fire.
I said those loose ends are indispensable: in truth, if you had a desire to cut Inferno down, and I would sympathize with that desire, you could get rid of Simmons, who's thematically redundant, and whose arc somehow takes him from an almost-nuanced striver, chafing under his father-in-law's conflicting demands, to a shrill, cartoonish jackass, alone amongst the cast in "earning" his death. (Even then, Allen and Silliphant take an extraordinary step: even as abominable as his behavior was, their villain is still mourned.) I am also not entirely pleased with the invisible oxygen tanks giving life to the pair of children Roberts winds up protecting during part of the second act, as you'd think the best reason to have two kids would be to kill one of them, but even the most nihilistic of disaster films tend to balk at that. (Five years before Alien, they also save the cat; but this pays off better.)
Otherwise, Inferno is a hard movie and a cruel one, killing randomly and shockingly, competing with the hopelessness of its predecessor; if anything, it punishes heroism and villainy equally. It peaks early, but I think with the clear intention to shake the audience out of any belief that this is rompy fun rather than cathartic horror, when it traps a pair of lovers (Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery) in their office, and spends a few long minutes with them as they feebly try to pretend that rescue is coming, only to end as the man, with the kind of bravery you only see when there's no other choice, attempts to sprint through the flames to get help, and makes it maybe fifteen feet before he is engulfed. Allen (if this is not an "action scene," the term has no meaning) shoots it with obliterating beauty—it is, without a doubt, one of the best flamesuit sequences of all time, if not the best—stretching out the visceral terror of it with slow motion, while the strongest effort of John Williams's powerful score, recapitulating the love song that played earlier, "We May Never Love Like This Again," sadly traces the man's final steps. It's almost unbearably terrible: it is very rad, and I don't want to diminish the awesomeness of it, but it goes beyond spectacle. It's a remarkable sequence: played humanely and sensitively by real actors, they never feel like extras marked for death. Though cut off from the rest of the story, there's just enough emphasis on their characters for them to feel like they could have been part of it. But that just wasn't how it worked out. Nothing in Inferno hits such a sour note again, but it doesn't need to, because being played once, it reverberates throughout the film. Everything in Inferno becomes, in a way, like it, each second a meditation on how the spaces and technology we believe will keep us safe are often lies told by the arrogant and the powerful, who cared more about what their glory looked like than what it meant for the people who relied on them.