The Towering Inferno

Year: 1974
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: John Guillermin
Producer: Irwin Allen
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughan, Robert Wagner, O J Simpson

Disaster movie crazes usually come on the backs of new filmmaking technologies or aesthetics. The movie screen has always been a cultural metaphor for big scope, so whether it was realistic miniatures, CGI or just a fad for global-scale destruction, audiences have lapped it up in everything from When Worlds Collide to 2012.

In the 70s, this adaptation of books The Tower and The Glass Inferno didn't have the disaster movie pop shots that characterise everything we love about the genre, but every scene was still gripping and despite the technical constraints of the era, the effects are good enough to help you suspend disbelief completely.

There wasn't much subtext to it but it was a vehicle for two of Hollywood's hottest leading mean and a cast of acting luminaries filling out the secondary characters.

Dramatically it's a classic ensemble piece, following everyone from the architect (Newman) arriving for the grand launch of his latest creation (a skyscraper reaching far into the air above San Francisco) to the conman (Astaire) who inadvertently falls in love with his mark.

Along with a smarmy playboy (Chamberlain), an office manager trying to keep the affair with his secretary (Wagner) under wraps, the building superintendent (Simpson) and a senator being wooed for political largesse (Vaughan) they're all present on the night of the party to celebrate the building's opening.

When an electrical short starts a minor blaze few people notice, but things turn bad fast. As the fire chief (McQueen) explains later on, he and his men can't fight anything over seven stories with much effect, and before long everyone inside is trapped as the fire spreads and cuts off access to the ground.

It's Hollywood adventure cinema all the way with a liberal dosage of sociological curiosity about who'll fall apart and who'll save the day thrown in. The emotional edge comes not just from the realistic performances given by Newman, McQueen and everyone around them, but with King Kong director Guillermin treating the script and subject seriously instead of making a camp action thriller.

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