Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Did you leave a cigarette burning?

The TOWERING INFERNO (1974) With Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Susan Flannery, and O.J. Simpson. Written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by John Guillermin and Irwin Allen.

The Towering Inferno might just be the biggest, most direct message movie of all time (along with, of course, being the biggest disaster flick). It is a clear-cut indictment of man's obsession with constructing the tallest buildings possible, buildings that don't scrape the sky as much as penetrate it.

The film takes place in the fictional 140-story Glass Tower in San Francisco. A gala celebrating its completion is being held on the top floor, while faulty circuits start a fire around floor 83. The fire soon spreads, trapping the hundred or so guests in the top part of the tower. Steve McQueen plays the fire chief who -- once he realizes the fire cannot be stopped -- must execute an elaborate mission to rescue the guests from the sub-stratosphere.

The two novels on which 'The Towering Inferno' is based were inspired by the construction of the World Trade Center in the early '70s. In one of the books, Thomas Scortia's "The Tower," the climactic rescue from the fictional glass tower is mounted from the north tower of the WTC. In the movie, the rescue is mounted from the nearby Pierre building.

The special effects hold up nicely and are more believable than anything a computer might come up with these days (though the real special effect is the cast). The story is flimsy and simplistic, the dialogue stunted ("You know, there is nothing the living can do to bring back the dead"), the characters forgettable. But the oomph comes via hindsight, at the end of the film, when many are dead. McQueen walks past the building's architect, played by Paul Newman. Both men are sooty and shaken from the ordeal. McQueen looks back, stonefaced, amid debris, and says, "You know we got lucky tonight. Body count's less than 200. Someday you're gonna kill 10,000 in one of those fire traps, and I'll keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them."

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