Looking Back At THE TOWERING INFERNO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace looks back at Irwin Allen's 1974 disaster epic, The Towering Inferno.
There’s something terrifying on a gut level about skyscrapers - or, at least, I have some unease when I encounter them; I’m from the Washington, D. C. area where there are strict building codes about how high you can go so that the great buildings of the District are not dwarved. I’m often just a tad overwhelmed when I go to New York or Chicago and see how humankind has dared to grope towards the heavens.

Such is the fear that The Towering Inferno exploits. Released in 1973, directed by John Guillermin, produced by Irwin Allen, and starring Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. This is a strange chimera of a film, although it isn’t obvious upon actually watching; it’s adapted from two novels unrelated other than details of their plots. These are The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson; seeing the titles, it becomes clear that the film’s title is a portmanteau. It is a great credit to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who, incidentally, has a name that ought to be that of a pulp adventure hero) that the integration of the two plots into a single cohesive storyline goes on without a hitch.
The Towering Inferno starts at a gala, those hoity-toity parties for the rich and famous to gather, to see, and to be seen. The press is there, the mayor of San Francisco is there (for that is where this gargantuan edifice was built), and rich people of all stripes are there. It feels almost perfect - almost - until a fire begins on one of its myriad floors. This turns out to have happened because of shoddy construction undertaken to save money - and the people who provided the capital for this tower are, of course, filthy rich.

That’s one of the things that struck me so much about The Towering Inferno: that tower is a literalization of the class divides that define America. You have the rich people on top, quite literally, at a fancy dress party on the top floor of the building, while the working class people who actually end up saving the day work on the lower floors. As in so many domains of human existence, the rich are insulated from the pain that other people suffer from until it is far, far too late. The millionaires on the floor that scrapes the skies deny reality in such a manner that feels all too real and all too infuriating.
More directly, this film is terrifying. I am more scared by things that could plausibly happen than by horror movie monsters, and that’s why I am always on the edge of my seat the entire runtime (and it’s rather long - set some time aside for it!). The interior hallways of any given skyscraper aren’t terribly wide; they allow for a horror film-esque exploitation of the environment, albeit in a way that isn’t quite the horror movie standard. Rather than scaring you with the darkness of a confined environment, you can see everything here, as fire is bright. You may see that which will kill you, but you may not be able to see the way out. You will certainly come away from The Towering Inferno with a much better appreciation for fire safety regulations.

This film, despite being of a genre that is commonly derided for being dumb, has some stellar performaces. The standout is Paul Newman as the architect Doug Roberts, who can, at times, seem like the only person here who is taking anything seriously. He knows how buildings operate, and he knows the callousness of the wealthy as they cut corners. Doug Roberts is the quintessential i-dotter and t-crosser that is needed for any dangerous enterprise, and he is the man of the hour.

The Towering Inferno also features a now-awkward part for O. J. Simpson, interestingly.
You will be scared of skyscrapers after this film. You will be scared of small hallways after this film. You will be scared of fire after this film. You will be scared of heights after this film. You will be scared of cost-cutting after this film. The list of things that The Towering Inferno will make you scared of goes on and on and on. It’s more real than any horror movie, and that’s why it works. It is perhaps the ideal disaster movie.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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