Saturday 20 August 2016

The Towering Inferno

No film genre is more synonymous with the Seventies than the disaster movie. (Well, apart from hairy porn movies.)

Beginning with Airport’s aviation perils in 1970, the decade saw Hollywood gamely trying to wipe out great swathes of humanity on a regular basis. Barely a week went by without some grim-faced thesp having to face an earthquake, volcano, avalanche, capsizing cruise ship, meteor or even swarm of killer bees.

But while each terrifying threat may have been different (not to mention increasingly outlandish), the formula the films employed was uncannily similar.

It invariably involved pitting a couple of big name actors against an exaggerated catastrophe, while a cast of once-famous Tinsel town stars (whose dimmed lustre handily made them both affordable and expendable) tried to stay alive until the closing credits.

Looking back, it’s hard to understand audiences’ enthusiasm for seeing silver screen luminaries meet a grisly fate. But there is no better example of this curious phenomena than The Towering Inferno (1974), a film which sets out with the sole aim of serving up some prime chargrilled celebrity.

The plot

As the world’s tallest skyscraper is officially opened, a select group of distinguished guests enjoy a lavish party on the 83rd floor.

Unbeknown to them, cost-cutting and shoddy workmanship during the construction has turned the tower into a glorified death-trap. (Presumably, Donald Trump was involved in the process.) So when a fire breaks out, the guests find themselves stuck on the upper floors with little chance of escape.

Who will live and who will die? Or, in this case, fry.

The cast

The Towering Inferno features not one, but two of the era’s most notable leading men.

Twinkly-eyed charmer Paul Newman plays the architect of the sky-scraping death-trap, while moody scowler Steve McQueen plays the fireman leading the rescue operation.

McQueen and Newman: The Towering Egos
The pair’s flinty onscreen relationship (“You fighting me or the fire?” asks Newman at one point) powers much of the film. Intriguingly, it also mirrored what was happening off-screen.

Both men saw themselves as the film’s biggest star and demanded top billing on the film. It seemed as if there was no solution until producers hatched a cunning compromise.

Famously, McQueen’s and Newman’s names are arranged diagonally across the posters and opening credits.

It may have looked like a typesetting error, but it meant that both actors could claim their name appeared first - depending if you were reading from left-to-right, or from top-to-bottom. Phew!

Inevitably, the petty squabbling didn’t stop there. After counting his lines of dialogue, McQueen discovered that Newman had 15 more than him. This prompted the self-styled ‘King of Cool’ to insist that the screenwriter write half a page of new lines for him.

Never mind Infernos, this movie was more a case of The Towering Egos.

They were expendable

Of course, the true pleasure in these films is seeing which of the expensively assembled cast of stars will get to live and who will perish. (In this respect, the Seventies disaster genre foresaw the rise of countless ‘who’s-next-for-the-chop’ reality shows, such as Big Brother. The key difference is that audiences then didn’t have to suffer some Geordie berk saying: ‘Steeeeve’s gaun tae the diiiiia-ry roooooom’ every three minutes.)

But we digress. Back in 1974, an ageing William Holden, playing the shambolic tower block’s owner, seems a sure bet for some barbecue treatment. You can almost smell the mustard sauce on him. But despite being largely to blame for the disaster, he ultimately shows sufficient contrition to secure ‘humbled survivor’ status. Result.

Richard Chamberlain: Richard
by name, Dick by nature
No such luck for dastardly Richard Chamberlain. As the electrical engineer responsible for the dodgy wiring that actually caused the fire, you’d think he might show just a twinkle of remorse – but not a bit of it. Instead, Tricky Dicky spends most of the movie hurling out insults and getting increasingly shit-faced.

So when a rescue chair winch is set up and Chamberlain, in the process of forcibly skipping the queue, callously kicks several other guests to their death (including – gasp! – the Man From Uncle’s brylcreem smoothie, Robert Vaughan) you know the bells are tolling.

Sure enough, a fortuitously-timed ‘sudden’ explosion blasts out the winch, breaks the rope and sends dastardly Dicky plunging to his death.

And still the stars keep coming. Former Fifties heartthrob Robert Wagner turns up briefly as a sleazy PR man who’s having a secret affair with his secretary. After a sweaty tryst in his office, the pair find themselves trapped by the encroaching fire.

With a fiery doom fast approaching, Wagner makes a kamikaze dash for help. We later learn it was a forlorn effort when the remains of his charred watch are discovered. But the film never resolves the fate of his girlfriend.

Still it wouldn’t be the only time Wagner left a woman to die in mysterious circumstances. Just ask Natalie Wood.

Perhaps the most undignified death is saved for screen legend Jennifer Jones. An Oscar-winning star of the Forties and Fifties (Duel In The Sun, A Song For Bernadette), Jones was coaxed out of

retirement for the role of a wealthy widower who is being courted by a charming conman played by Fred Astaire.

But just as their delicately handled romance blossoms, our Jenny is unceremoniously bumped off. In an ineptly staged scene, with absolutely zero sense of occasion, she simply tumbles from a damaged elevator like a piece of luggage.

Worse, nobody shows the slightest reaction to this supposed tragedy. The impression given to the audience is that, in a movie stuffed with so many competing egos and such bloated self-regard, the bigger stars were unwilling to even ‘act’ upset for the cinematic demise of such a faded name.

Poor Jenny. It’s hard to think of a more inelegant or ungraceful way for an actor to exit a film, or indeed a career. Jones never acted again. And Exploding Helicopter doesn’t blame her.

Exploding helicopter action

After a credulity-stretching amount of time, someone finally (finally!) has the idea using a helicopter to evacuate the partygoers from tower’s roof.

But in keeping with the plot’s many anti-escape contrivances (blocked stairwells, faulty alarm systems) a high wind conspires to make the air rescue a dangerous endeavour.

Sure enough, as the first helicopter comes into land, a couple of over-keen party guests run straight out onto the landing pad – literally where the chopper’s about to land – for reasons that remain unclear to this day. The pilots try to avoid crushing the people below, but the aircraft is caught in a gust of wind and crashes into the roof, exploding instantly.

Burn baby, burn. It’s a chopper inferno.

Artistic merit

Not a lot of this scene makes sense. Where have these gale force winds suddenly sprung from? What made the chopper explode instantly like that? Why were the idiot guests throwing themselves on to the landing pad in the first place?

Don’t waste any precious brain cells trying to work this lot out. Clearly, the scene’s only purpose is to put the helipad out of commission for the rest of the film.

Still, the explosion does produce a nice, juicy, fuselage-consuming fireball. But one qualm: we only get to glimpse it briefly before the action moves back inside the building.

This is strange. Given that The Towering Inferno is a big budget blockbuster – almost exclusively dedicated to blowing stuff up and burning things – shouldn’t the producers want to dwell a bit on such a magnificent sight as a flaming chopper?

Generally, yes. But in this case, perhaps the director understood just how creaky and convoluted the circumstances of the helicopter’s destruction were – and opted to whizz through the scene before anyone had time to realize how bonkers it all was.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s nothing new in the manner or execution of this chopper fireball, but the location is fairly distinct. The only other film where Exploding Helicopter has seen a helicopter destroyed at the top of a tower block is Die Hard (1988).

Favourite line

After sniffing some smoke one hopelessly optimistic tower worker asks: “Did you leave a cigarette burning?”

Interesting fact

Desperate to capture a truly surprised reaction from the cast, Irwin Allen actually fired a handgun into the ceiling without warning the actors, who were understandably ‘surprised’. The trick worked and he got his shot.

Review by: Jafo


  1. Do you ever rate tv series episodes? It you are, check out the helicopter explosion in this season 6 episode called The Visitors!

    1. We'd love to do TV series as well, but we've got our hands full at Exploding Helicopter HQ just cataloging cinematic ones.

  2. I just noticed that in my last post I forgot to name the TV series (it was Mission Impossible).

    Anyway, thanks for another great review! And I wasn't sure if guys knew this, but O.J. Simpson played a security guard in the movie (cue Twilight Zone theme hear.)