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The Roof is on Fire: A Treatise on The Towering Inferno

Welcome, Bleat readers. When you're done with this post, you might enjoy today's installment in the disaster series, in which I take on Earthquake.

[Part I in a series on disaster movies]

Yesterday, James Lileks wrote something that struck a nerve. It was as if his hand reached all the way from Minnesota to New York and slapped me right where my film aesthetics lie.

And now back to the Towering Inferno, which just sucks.

My first reaction was childish. I stuck tongue out at The Bleat and said does not!

Maybe we just have to define our meaning of the word disaster. See, there's disaster as in so bad that anyone who worked on this movie should never be allowed to work in the film industry again (see Uwe Boll). And there's disaster, as in Death! Destruction! Former A-list actors emoting! Special effects gone wild! One cannot apply the word sucks to the latter.

I'll admit it. The Towering Inferno does, in a small way, fit both categories. The dialogue was cheesy. The special effects elicited laughter. And, thanks to my fireman father, I can recite from memory the litany of things they just got wrong in regards to fighting fires.

So what does Inferno have going for it, then? Simple. The 1970's were the heyday of the disaster genre and Inferno - even though it wasn't the first of its kind -paved the way for all other movies like it because of its critical success.

We had our first disaster in 1972, with the Poseiden Adventure. The success of that party cruise gone wrong movie spawned Inferno (also directed by Irwin Allen of Poseidon fame) and Earthquake in 1974, and Airport '75 in, yes, 1975 (the first Aiport movie came out in 1970, but that was so lame as to not count) as well as Swarm ('78) and Meteor ('79). Inferno, Earthquake and Poseiden formed the Earth, Water and Fire trifecta of 72/74 (Wind didn't make an appearance until the 90's with Twister, unless you count Wizard of Oz).

The Big Three of disaster flicks had similar threads running throug them: children in peril, clandestine love affairs and what would become the staple of all disaster movies - the greed/laziness/evilness of man. After all three of this movies, the viewer is left thinking, is nature our enemy or is progress our enemy? Or, are we our own worst enemy?

No, not really. I think I might be the only person who went off on a philosophical/sociological bent after watching these films. And I was only ten when Poseidon came out. Most people, after watching any of the films, were left thinking, holy shit, the cheese in that movie could feed an army of mice or, did you see when that boulder bounced off the actor's head?

This is why Inferno rules above all other disaster flicks. It's not just about the fire. tf2.jpgSure, there are people to rescue, flames to douse, love to be rekindled (no pun intended). But there's a message, too. A deep, resounding message that is made quite clear when Steve McQueen as Chief O'Halloran says:

Now, you know we don't have a sure way to fight a fire over the seventh floor, but you just keep building 'em higher and higher.

Damn you and your filthy progress!

Another choice quote from the Chief:

You know we got lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. Someday your gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I'll keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them.

See? If you think this movie is just about burning people falling out of glass elevators and cheating husbands incinerating themselves so no one finds them dead in the arms of their lover, you're missing out on the meat and potatoes. It's the classic battle of man v. man, when one man is the good public servant and the other man is the evil, greedy bastard who just wants to make his money, damn humanity. But, of course, in the end the evil man either gets his comeuppance or he realizes the error of his ways and crawls on his hands and knees to Steve McQueen or Charlton Heston, begging to be shown how to make things right. So he doesn't go to hell, of course.

I'm not making my case, I know. Ok, you know why Towering Inferno doesn't suck?tf3.jpg What other movie can boast numerous deaths and Fred Astaire? Fred was nominated for an Oscar for this role! Earthquake may have Victoria Principal's boobs and Sensurround and Poseidon Adventure may have Shelly Winters's deathly water ballet, but Inferno has a Brady kid and O.J. Simpson.

tf4.jpgAnd really, it's riveting in the way few movies are, because it works on so many levels. You have the inter personal stories involving love, greed and corruption. You have impending doom, certain death and explosions. All this is combined with dialogue served with so much fromage, it's like the Atkins platter of movies.

James Duncan: Senator Parker is flying in from Washington tonight for the dedication ceremony. He's almost guaranteed to sign the Urban Renewal Contract. Do you know what that means? Skyscrapers like this all over the country. You design 'em and I'll build 'em.
Doug Roberts: Don't you think you're suffering from an edifice complex?

I rest my case. How can you not be a sucker for a line like that? Especially when it's spoken by Paul Newman.

A-list actors. Bad dialogue. Unbelievable script. You know, this is nothing different than George Lucas is doing these days, and people stand in line for months to see his movies. At least Inferno didn't pretend to be more important than it was.

If you have never seen this movie, I dare you to watch it and not be riveted. Look past the cliche script and you'll see great cinematography in action, a few good acting turns and a story line that makes the 2 hour viewing time go by in a snap.

Don't listen to Lileks and other naysayers. Earthquakes, tornados and global warming be damned. Astaire, McQueen and Newman make Inferno the greatest disaster movie ever.

Here's your proof:

The Towering Inferno received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Astaire), Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound, Editing, Song ("We May Never Love This Way Again"), and Score. It won three of the awards, for Cinematography, Editing and Song.

What other disaster movie can claim such pedigree?

Next up: My statement in support of Earthquake.


Well, he also slammed AVP and Sky Captain, so I'm just chalking it all up to brain fever.

Yeah, I enjoyed Towering Inferno. I'm really not sure I could go back and watch that movie after September 11, though.


I felt the same way for a while. I finally watched Inferno last week when it was on AMC and I thought of 9/11 only fleetingly - probably because I was busy scrutinizing the dialogue and effects.


Horrible movie. Horrible. It's like watching Love Boat.

Horrible movie. Horrible. It's like watching Love Boat.

Sure, if Love Boat had people in flames!

I bought "The Towering Inferno" from the Wal-Mart $5 bin about two years ago, and have not regretted it for one second since.

...although I'm not sure I'm totally down with the idea that "[i]t's the classic battle of man v. man, when one man is the good public servant and the other man is the evil, greedy bastard who just wants to make his money, damn humanity."

I don't remember Paul Newman as an evil greedy guy... I thought he was more of an uncomprimising guy who was dismayed to find that some of the important details of his masterpiece skyscraper had been comprimised while it was being built, thereby comprimising the safety of all those who would inhabit it, and that he recognized that this would be a Bad Thing.

Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, though.

...just like how I compromised the spelling of "compromising." Ugh.

I wasn't talking about Newman - I thought he was contrite about the whole thing. I was referring mainly to Richard Chamberlain's character when I used the word evil.

Your list of disasters doesn't include one of the cheesiest of all time - Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones.

There is also on SciFi disaster front - Deep Impact and Armageddon which was a disaster in every way that word can apply.

All I remember from my decades-ago viewing of Towering Inferno is that it seemed like O.J. said "damnit man!" about 30 times.

I'm only in the 70's yet!

AMC had a great disaster trifecta in January that I watched when I was home sick with a cold/flu:

Towering Inferno

Mondo cheese, but soooo worth it.

Michele, you've just quit smoking. Right now when you think of the Towering Inferno, you're thinking about a 137-story cigarette. Naturally this clouds the judgment.

Eric: I loved Sky Captain. Beyond reason.

Yeah, but did Earthquake have a cool theme song like "(There's got to be a) Morning After"?
Poseiden Adventure gets the edge for the theme song.

BTW, my current favorite movie is "Hellboy", so I don't think I'm a good source for movie critiques.

I saw Poseidon Adventure when I was 10 too, Michele, and at the time I thought it was just the coolest thing I had ever seen on film. Watched a bit of it not long ago on late-night TV and wondered how I could ever have praised such a monumental pile of Wisconsin Cheddar. Tastes change, that's for sure.

That film was remarkable for one thing, however: we got to see Shelley Winters soaking wet...a sight nobody should have to bear more than once in their lifetime.

I haven't been able to bring myself to watch Towering Inferno since 9/11, and have permanently taken Armageddon out of my DVD rotation (precisely because of the scene where the metorites slam into NYC whacking everything from the Chrylser Building (and commenting on how well the CGI handled the bodies flying all over the place) to the WTC, which managed to stand the onslaught).

Watching TI growing up, I always thought it was the coolest thing, from having both McQueen and Newman sharing the same screen, although one had to have higher billing on the credits than the other. And who can forget OJ saving the cat, Fred Astair doing his thing, and watching Richard Chamberlain and others fighting over the rope chair right before they blew the water tanks.

Tremendous cheese indeed. But it was fun cheese that seemed to make a point.

has anyone ever seen the 1972 movie "Frogs"? Truly terrible/amazing.

Yeah, I thought Eric had misunderstood the Homer head.

Thank goodness Lileks set the record straight on Sky Captain. For the life of me, I couldn't tell if he loved it or hated it.

Myself, I loved it. It has Giant Robots. That's an automatic loved it right there.

For future reference, when Lileks shows this:

That means he likes it. As in droooooooool.

"TTI" has been etched into my memory way to much. I remember after the planes hit the towers, I hoped there was a large water reservoir on top of the buildings that could been blown up and put the fires out.:-(
/love the movie

Don't listen to Lileks and other naysayers. Earthquakes, tornados and global warming be damned. Astaire, McQueen and Newman make Inferno the greatest disaster movie ever.

It's got a kickass theme song to boot too.

Eric: I loved Sky Captain. Beyond reason.

I've posted a truly pitiful, sniveling apology. It wasn't my fault. I blame Michael Moore. The stars were misaligned. I don't understand "The Simpsons."

So I can come out of the closet now as another Towering Inferno admirer.

Cheesy? Definitely. But cheese tastes so good...

Same goes for movies like Earthquake. Few movies these days has such classic dialogue like this:
"Barbara! Take off your pantyhose, dammit!"

And I used to have the hots for Genevieve Bujold, too.

"Towering Inferno" has been out of the rotation for me since 9/11 as well but I just remember one thing over and over again - the Steve McQueen character. The dialogue was awful but McQueen had the "let's go to work" attitude that you knew belonged to firemen.

And he and Paul Newman made one spiffy looking pair.

I would like to nominate Titanic for the biggest disaster movie of all time, and in all categories of disaster.

Sky Captain was cool for about 10 minutes. Then the migraine kicked in. Maybe it looks better on DVD.

Doesn't anybody remember Last Voyage from 1960??? They partially sank a real ship (the Ile De France, no less) and everything. Doesn't this count as an early disaster film? Robert Stack valiantly searching for a torch to free his wife, squished by something big and heavy after a boiler exploded. The drama! The romance! The endless fight against a hopeless situation! It doesn't get any better than that.

Oh, the humanity!

I used to watch TI whenever it came on tv. That was because I was deep into a crush on Richard Chamberlain and I would watch anything he was in.

The Towering Inferno is crap... and I love it from the opening helicopter shot to end credits. But there were actually a couple of elements that are world class.

First is John Williams' score. This lush orchestral music may not be iconic like his later work on Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) or Superman (1978) or as thrilling as his theme for the Indiana Jones movies, but it never just devolves into gushy sentiment and it's almost inspiring when we first see the building.

Second is Steve McQueen's performance. Considering how leadenly lame the dialog is, how McQueen casually transcends it is just amazing. He absolutely inhabits his character with every motion and movement that of a man genuinely comfortable around firefighting equipment and firefighters. McQueen gave better performances, but I don't think there's a character he played that seemed more natural than this one.

I'm also a big fan of the San Francisco Hyatt's pyramid internal architecture and glass elevators (both prominently featured in the film as elements of the fictional building). And they never looked better than they do in this film. Every time I go to San Francisco I have to stop at the Hyatt just to see it again.

So that's three good things it has going for it. And throw that in with all the cheesy stuff and you've got solid entertainment.

I'm surprised that no one else has mentioned the dedication at the start of the movie "To those who give their lives so that others might live... To the fire fighters of the world... This picture is gratefully dedicated." It seemed pretty goofy to me the first through 100th times I saw this movie. But after 9/11 it took on a certain poignancy... even though it's still awkward.

Finally, the original Airport (1970) is a great disaster movie! It has the best disaster movie score ever by Alfred Newman, two great overwrought performances by Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton, there's Jacqueline Bisset on board at her delectable prime, Helen Hayes is there hamming it up for laughs, and Dean Martin flies the plane! It's nearly a perfect movie! Plus it was nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture! And Helen Hayes actually won for Best Supporting Actress. And you just casually dismiss it? For shame.

How about a disaster movie with Richard Chamberlain, Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Fred MacMurray AND directed by Irwin Allen?

The Swarm (1978)

Enjoy, Cheeselovers!

I adore Lileks, but if you don't like AvP or Sky Cap, you need your movie license revoked. I'm a little surprised that no one has mentioned that paean to environmentalism, 'The Prophecy'. As relevant now, as it was in 1979.

BTW, couldn't The Swarm qualify as the "air" disaster to round out the earth/water/fire disaster movie trilogy? The bees are air*borne*, anyway, which is close enough for me....

Oh, yeah, and what is "the litany of things they just got wrong in regards to fighting fires?" I have no doubt there are a bunch of them, but don't know enough to say exactly what they are....

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow just looks like a film made for Lileks. Cheesy 1939 World of Tomorrow NYWF rip off movie title alone was sure to make Lileks hands quiver as he passed it at his local Blockbuster. However the movie proceeded to rip off films comics and other horrible things.

Here's an insight into the writer's minds:

"Submarine plane? Sure! Yes it was done far better with Roger Moore and Barbara Bach in the Spy Who Loved Me. But hey wait...1977? That's right our target audience wasn't alive then.

Countless Indiana Jones rip offs? Good idea! Those movies were hits right?

Return of the Jedi, Empire Strikes back catwalks? Check. They made money!

Shield Helicarrier from Marvel Comics? Hey, I thought Nick Fury was cool, eyepatch and all. Angelina Jolie beats the cr-p out of Jasper Sitwell!

Lenscap! Ha Ha! Love that line! Soooo funny!"

Now the producer:

"Make real sets? Use real vintage cars? Heck No! Blue screen it ALL baby! ALL! Cheap! You say it will irritate those who came to see vintage type artifacts and attention to vintage detail? What the he-l? Do you think we're making this movie for James Lileks or other geezers? Get real! They can rent it from Blockbuster like they all do anyway. Our target audience is 13-25 and they will LOVE it. We blew a bundle to get Gwyneth Paltrow! We can't go wrong!"

Lileks was probably ready to throttle everyone involved with Sky Captain. If a movie deserved literary evisceration - that is one of them.

Are you people not paying attention? He LOVED Sky Captain. BEYOND REASON.

That's just sarcasm Michele...pure sarcasm. Either that or Lileks has got a ghostwriter writing his blog and filling in for him while he recovers from the effects of a Chuck E. Cheese "pizza."

I've seen the World of Tomorrow...and that sorry excuse for a film ain't it!

"Inferno" is klassic - yes, with a "k", but still klassic. Lileks' opinion means less and less to me these days as he slips sadly into some kind of strange, possibly Target-induced coma.

The SCTV parody of "The Towering Inferno" is almost as good as the real thing.

Gak, I feel so old suddenly. I paid to see this at the theatre. First release. Big screen, lights, etc. This was a Big Deal when it filmed in San Francisco (BofA plaza was the base for the inferno, and every time McQueen first drives up and jumps that curb I laugh; the real curb is a foot-high cliff and cars just go "crunch" when they hit it.)

I love it. It's cheesy, stupid, and filled with dialogue that makes you go "gak" and I love it anyway. Flaming adultress falling to her bouncing death, heroic heros dying needless at the last moment, etc. What a hoot! And for buying leisure suits off the rack at Sears, it got an Oscar nomination for costuming!

More serious, the music is some of John Williams's best work, the photography is excellent, and the editing was spot on (hence the awards in the last two categories).

But how you'll defend "Earthquake" is a mystery. There are some depths I am unable to fathom.