‘The Towering Inferno’ still furnishes fiery suspense

Steve McQueen in “The Towering Inferno”

When it comes to disaster movies, “The Towering Inferno” is the Cadillac of them.

Though other films including his own “The Poseidon Adventure” had used the all-star, multiple-stories-funneling-into-one premise earlier, producer Irwin Allen’s 1974 epic — now streaming on HBO Max — went bigger and better, making industry history by uniting two major studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.) on one project for the first time and cementing the presence of the genre for the rest of that decade.

Allen himself oversaw the directing of the picture’s action sequences, as he had done on “Poseidon,” and he certainly had his own work cut out for him with the saga (merged from two similarly themed novels) of a San Francisco fire engulfing the world’s tallest building on its inaugural night. Paul Newman plays the architect who has designed the structure for builder William Holden, neither knowing that the use by Holden’s son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) of cheaper-than-planned materials has set the place up for … well, disaster.

That starts with a small, barely detected blaze a few hours before an opening-night party near the top of the so-called Glass Tower. Once it’s discovered, fire chief Steve McQueen and his troops do what they can, though he allows that there’s no sure way to fight a fire that high up. That’s soon discovered firsthand by partygoers who include Newman’s girlfriend (Faye Dunaway), Holden’s daughter (Susan Blakely), a senator (Robert Vaughn) and a con man and his intended mark (Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones).

Backed by music by John Williams (who scored “Earthquake” the same year), “The Towering Inferno” runs nearly three hours but rarely slows down, piling spectacles on top of one another. Among them: Newman, Jones and two children (one of them Mike Lookinland, alias Bobby on “The Brady Bunch”) trying to escape from a blown-out stairwell; and McQueen struggling to keep another fireman from falling while helping to lower a passenger-packed outside elevator to the ground.

For movie fans, there’s also fun in seeing how many of the stars worked together in other films, though they don’t always share scenes here. McQueen and Dunaway starred in “The Thomas Crown Affair”; Newman and Robert Wagner, who plays the building’s public-relations director, were in “Harper”; Vaughn worked with Newman in “The Young Philadelphians” and with McQueen in “Bullitt.” And a couple of years later, Holden and Dunaway both would score Oscar nominations (with Dunaway winning) for “Network.”

In fact, “The Towering Inferno’s” two top-billed actors had been teamed before in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” with Newman then having the starring role and McQueen unbilled … so here, the famously competitive McQueen insisted on having the exact same number of spoken lines as Newman. It all worked out and worked, and the better part of 50 years later, “The Towering Inferno” remains one of the most effective pictures of its kind.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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