It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Towering Inferno” is a brawny blockbuster of a movie, by far the best of the mid-1970s wave of disaster films. It’s three hours long, it cost something like $13 million to make which was a lot at the time and it’s an example of Hollywood commercial moviemaking at its finest. It’s also a movie to make me happy I don’t live in a high-rise; people above the seventh floor should find it thought-provoking.
The story involves a mythical 135-floor San Francisco skyscraper, which, through a combination of meticulously constructed models and convincing special-effects photography, looks realistic even though we know it’s not. The building has been designed by architect Paul Newman, constructed by builder William Holden and sabotaged by the cost-cutting of his son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain.
There are ominous omens right from the beginning. All the principals arrive at the building for a big dedication party in the top floor restaurant, but meanwhile a generator shorts out and a small fire begins in an equipment room. The building has a state-of-the-art central communications and security system, but half the equipment doesn’t work. As one of the big shots tells Holden: “I told you we shouldn’t have held the party until the safeguards were installed.” Famous last words.
The original fire spreads, more electrical equipment malfunctions, gas leaks explode and in no time the tower is a mass of flames. Steve McQueen is the fire chief, calm, cool and courageous, even when he and a lot of his men are trapped above the blaze. He manages to move around pretty efficiently, however, by escaping down an elevator shaft only to be airlifted up to rescue the occupants of a stalled outside tourist elevator, and later to be dropped on the roof for some split-second heroics with Paul Newman.