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Film / The Towering Inferno

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Jim Duncan: Oh, come on. Now just how bad is it?
Chief O'Hallorhan: It's a fire, mister, and all fires are bad.

A 1974 Disaster Movie produced by Irwin Allen, directed by John Guillermin and featuring an All-Star Cast headed by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

The Towering Inferno was the first Hollywood movie to come from two major studios — it was a co-production between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. The story was based on two similarly-plotted novels, The Tower and The Glass Inferno. Warner had purchased the film rights to the former, and Fox the latter; Producer Irwin Allen realized that two Dueling Movies about a skyscraper on fire would basically cannibalize the audience for both films (as would happen a couple decades later, when the aforementioned 20th Century Fox released Volcano not long after Universal released Dante's Peak, both films dealing with sudden volcano eruptions). To prevent this from happening it was decided it would be better for both studios to combine resources to make one BIG picture. (On a side note, The Glass Inferno was co-written by Thomas N. Scortia, who tends to write a lot of books about fires.)


In the film, a red-carpet party is being held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the world's tallest skyscraper, the 138-story Glass Tower. One of the few not celebrating is the architect, Doug Roberts (Newman), who's still upset that developer/builder Jim Duncan (William Holden) made significant changes to the design during construction in the name of saving money. He's particularly annoyed at electrical contractor Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) who has shaved so much from the budget that the building's wiring is already showing signs of overload. It doesn't help that he's also Duncan's son-in-law.

Sure enough, because of the faulty wiring resulting from said cut corners, a short circuit in a janitor's closet grows into a massive fire. As the guests become trapped in the building, it falls on Fire Chief Micheal O'Hallorhan (McQueen) and the San Francisco Fire Department to help save the day.


The Towering Inferno features examples of:

  • Absolute Cleavage: Faye Dunaway's evening gown along with some other female guests at the party.
  • Action Politician: Downplayed, but Mayor Ramsey and Senator Parker refuse to panic or capitalize on their status to try and get rescued over anyone else, help keep order among the panicked guests, and Parker races to try and stop Simmons and his companions from swamping the breeches buoy. Governor Armitage and Senator Peters from The Tower also count, although Congressman Wycoff is a subversion.
  • Adapted Out:
    • From The Glass Inferno
      • Ian Douglas, an interior designer and the one who discovers and reports the fire (ironically in the process of preparing to burn his own storeroom for the insurance) makes his way to the top floor along with a cleaning lady and her Addled Addict son, and takes charge of the survivors left there.
      • Jeffrey Quantrell, a reporter who'd been covering the flaws of the building, leading to a libel suit which was just about to get him fired when the building accidentally did catch fire.
      • Krost, a drunken maintenance man who accidentally causes the fire by hiding a bottle of whiskey with a lit cigarette inside it.
      • Donaldson, another maintenance man who helps coordinate with the firefighters.
      • Griff Edwards, the building engineer.
      • Fire Chief Fuchs and his firefighter son Mark (who are both injured fighting the fire).
      • Mark's rookie partner and high school classmate Dave Lencho.
      • The Harris family (the parents and eldest daughter are at a movie while the younger children are saved by Jernigan early on and had taken anti-fire precautions they'd learned from Lisolette).
      • Jernigan's assistant Art Garfunkel.
      • Two restaurant customers who initially try to commandeer one of the unsafe elevators but are persuaded to help get people out of the one safe elevator in an orderly fashion instead.
      • Will Shevelson: a construction manager fired for complaining about the cost-cutting who gave information to Quantrell and later supplies the fire department with the only 100% accurate plans to the building.
      • A group of trapped firemen who escape down the elevator cables (losing one of their number in the process).
      • Lex Hughes, an unhappy accountant who ends up trying to rob his office upon realizing the fire would hide his theft.
      • Thelma, the wife of the building owner, who's present during the fire.
    • From The Tower
      • John Connors, a disgruntled sheet metal worker who starts the electrical fire while setting off a bomb (not meant to kill anyone) out of a vendetta against the city over the death of his wife from insulin withdrawal in a police drunk tank.
      • Governor Bent Armitage, who serves as the Big Good of the story and takes charge of those trapped in the building.
      • The unnamed fire commissioner (one of the party guests, who helps keep anyone from overrunning the beach buoys).
      • Patrolmen Barnes and Shannon, who provide security outside of the tower both before and after the fire and provide a Greek Chorus of sorts.
      • Grover Frazee, a minor politician in charge of organizing the party who ignores warnings about the fire danger and suffers a Sanity Slippage afterwards.
      • Simmons' accomplices: safety inspector Harry Whittaker (who has a My God, What Have I Done? moment after seeing about the fire on the news) and electrical foreman Pat Harris (who is also implied to have murdered two construction workers who wanted to tell the architect about what he was up to).
      • Congressman Cary Wycoff, who has Simmons role as the main rabble rouser inside of the building, and his older, cool-headed contemporary Jake Peters.
      • Hilda Cook, a Broadway actress who is the first one down the beach buoys.
      • The U.N. Inspector General (a holocaust survivor with a somewhat practical view of how people react to disaster).
      • Beth Shirley, Mayor Ramsey's cousin, and the Governor's love interest.
      • An unnamed waiter with three children who draws one of the last numbers to be evacuated in the lottery but is nonetheless able to Face Death with Dignity.
      • Joe Lewis, an electrician who wasn't in on Simmons' racket.
      • Senior architect Ben Caldwell, who is concerned about the possibility of corner cutting but underestimates the scope of it when asked if the party should be cancelled, and posses a keen idea of how unlikely any rescue attempts are to save everyone.
      • Reverend Willie Joe Thomas who preaches against the building as a symbol of idolatry both before and after the fire breaks out.
      • Simmons' secretary and former mistress Ruth, who sends evidence of his misconduct to the authorities.
      • Corrupt Corporate Executive J. Paul Norris, a cowardly guest unwilling to let the women take the elevator down first when it looks safe.
      • Firemen Dennis Howard and Lou Storr, who are sent to try and open some blocked stairwell doors but fail and end up taking refuge along with the trapped party guests.
      • Patty's mother, Mary.
      • Coast Guardsmen Kronski and Oliver (who fire the Beach buoy harpoon).
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film was based on two different novels about burning buildings, The Glass Inferno and The Tower. To prevent unnecessary competition between similar projects, the production companies merged them into one film!
  • Adaptational Heroism: Two from The Glass Inferno. While still a nuanced, somewhat sympathetic character in the novel, Harlee has a longer, more successful career of having conned old women. The film makes it vague if he's ever been a successful conman before meeting Lisolette. Bigelow is also a lot more unpleasant in the novel, being an adulterer who callously dumped his mistress, and abandoned her while she she was passed out drunk in an attempt to save himself, while in the film, there's no indication that he's married and he charges out, braving the flames in an effort to find someone to get her out.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Lampshaded by Susan.
  • Anyone Can Die: Major characters can easily plummet to their deaths or get burned to a crisp. Of the actors shown on the poster, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner all have their characters die.
  • Asshole Victim: Roger Simmons, full stop. It is his negligence and cost-cutting that causes the massive inferno, and at no point does he ever appear to lament his part in it. He tries to muscle his way to the front of the line for the breeches buoy as the fire nears the top floor, and in the struggle that ensues he deliberately kicks two men rushing to stop him to their deaths, taking a third with him when the buoy is blown off the building, causing his own death in the process.
  • The Atoner: Duncan, by the time he realizes how badly he's screwed up.
    Duncan (To the other men): You've all got numbers, and you're going to take your turn. And if it's any consolation, I'm going to be the last one out of here, along with my son-in-law!
  • Award-Bait Song: "We May Never Love Like This Again," written and recorded by the same team behind the Oscar-winning "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure. They won a second Oscar for it.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Lorrie, the secretary, opts to die by jumping to her death than face burning or suffocating from the smoke.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Despite O'Hallorhan's report that the loss of life in the disaster could've been a lot worse, we are still left with the haunting images of the nearly 200 people who didn't survive the blaze and with a grim lesson in what happens when architectural safety in a high-rise building is compromised. Not to mention that San Francisco loses both their senator and their mayor.
  • Blatant Lies: Bigelow on the phone with the fire department. He fesses up when called on it shortly after, though.
  • Career Versus Man: Susan hesitates between following her fiancé Doug, who wants to live in the countryside, and applying for the position of editor of the newspaper she works for. In the end, she chooses to follow Doug.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Mrs. Allbright's handicap and her son's headphones: we understand that she is deaf when she picks up her kids. Likewise, we see that her son Phillip wears headphones. This is the reason why they do not hear the evacuation signal later.
    • The scenic elevator: some guests use it to get to the Promenade Room. Some guests also use it to evacuate during the fire.
    • The water tanks: they are seen when Doug Roberts goes from the staircase (where he has left the children and Mrs. Mueller) to the Promenade Room. They are used in the end to put out the fire.
  • Con Man: Harlee Claiborne is a con man who sells forged bonds.
  • Convection Schmonvection:
    • In a real high-rise fire, smoke and heat will travel upwards in a "chimney effect" aided by the building envelope. The fires in this movie do not generate the dense smoke that most real building fires do. The movie subverts this sometimes when it comes to smoke (but not always heat) when the plot necessitates characters recognizing the fire. Of course, virtually 90% of the action in the movie would be invisible if fire were treated fully realistically.note 
    • Frighteningly averted by what happens to Bigelow. He just runs into a burning room and the sheer heat causes him to burst into flames
  • Cutting Corners: The whole hellish situation can be laid at Roger Simmons' feet for caring more about saving money than about keeping to safety code.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Simmons isn't present at the building in The Tower and is instead arrested afterwards and Congressman Wycoff, who has some of his role as a rabble rouser up there, is among those who make it down in time. The corner cutter from The Glass Inferno, building owner Leroux, also ultimately makes it down alive (although facing ruin).
    • Lisoette makes it down alive in The Glass Inferno and gets a happy ending to her subplot.
    • Giddings isn't burned in The Tower, where his role is primarily focused on investigating the possibility of corner-cutting before the disaster, although he does suffer from some mild smoke-inhalation while working to try and send up an elevator. Griff Edwards, an engineer who has some of his role in The Glass Inferno also survives, despite being briefly hospitalized from a heart attack while fighting the fire after it is initially discovered.
    • In both books, only one person is killed by the burning elevators, as opposed to a crowd that rushes them. In The Glass Inferno the building owner manages to keep the panicking restaurant customers who want to go down in the elevator from doing so by pointing out that if the elevator was safe, then the firemen would have came up in it to help them. Several floors below and sometime earlier, Security Chief Jernigan also prevents a rush on the elevators, after seeing signs of fire damage, by punching out a belligerent tennant. One building employee who drunkenly tries to take the elevator is killed, though. In The Tower one guest hijacks the elevator, which was falsely assumed to be safe, right before it would have been used to evacuate the women causing him to die while they remained up there.
    • The helicopter pilot who lands on the roof in The Glass Inferno doesn't crash and is able to successfully rescue many characters that way.
  • Death by Irony:
    • Roberts makes a point of getting Lisolette Mueller a coveted place on the scenic elevator for its gravity brake descent, due to her help in ushering the Allbright children to safety. An explosion during said descent sends her plummeting out of the elevator to her death.
    • The water tank explosions to douse the fire at the end kill several people in their own right, most notably Carlos the bartender and Mayor Ramsay.
  • Death by Sex: Bigelow and his secretary are killed almost immediately after a sexual rendezvous in his apartment... just before the fire crew arrive on their level. To top it off, he actually disconnected his phone so as not to be disturbed during their activities. Had he not done so, he'd have been told about the fire right away.
  • Dedication: To the fire fighters of the world.
  • Demoted to Extra: Patty Simmons is a somewhat larger character in the novel The Tower, with her relationships with her husband and father being developed more, as well as having a rapport with the architect.
  • Developing Doomed Characters
  • Diagonal Billing: The Trope Codifier, created to assuage the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman starring in the same movie.
  • Dirty Coward: Roger Simmons, who takes the lift before his turn and pushes Senator Parker and another man clinging to it to their deaths.
  • Drives Like Crazy: O'Hallorhan's entrance, where he almost pops a wheelie up the steps to the plaza, and skids over a 1.5 inch supply hose.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: During the opening credits a helicopter flies over the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Elevator Failure: Though there are no falling elevators, there are plenty of gruesome scenes involving them, including a mass of burning people in a cab.
  • Fight to Survive: A lot of people in a burning building trying to not die.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening has a number of them in addition the usual refusal to accept that there is any risk, from the visual (the tower shaped cabinet full of smoke) to character's conversations ("You'll never leave", "After the party, come on downstairs and watch me burn my black tie!", "We won't be so messy tomorrow. We're gonna try charcoals").
    • Arguably the small scene in which Lorrie sees a plastic object with the Duncan motto ("We Build for Life") being consumed by the flames foreshadows both the corners that were cut in the building's construction and her own imminent death.
  • Got Volunteered: O'Halloran is basically put in this spot, told he's one of only two people in the department who has the training to plant explosives on the water tanks and the other guy just got taken to the hospital. Lampshaded when he calls Roberts.
    Roberts: Well, how are they getting the explosives up here?
    O'Halloran: Oh, they'll find some dumb son of a bitch to do it.
  • Hate Sink: Roger Simmons, and to a lesser extent, Jim Duncan. The fact the tower is on fire and that there's so many victims can be placed completely at their feet, because of incompetence, penny-pinching, nepotism and looking for political benefits over everything else. However, while Duncan eventually owns up to his role in the fire and steps up to help, Simmons remains firmly in this territory.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: Phillip Allbright wears headphones in the middle of the fire when Doug finds him in his bedroom.
  • Hellish Copter: See Hope Spot below.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Duncan, Roberts, and Simmons all qualify for the irresponsible decisions they made in the building's construction. It is Simmons however who takes the cake when he tries to commandeer the breeches buoy for himself against everyone's protests, an act that gets him killed when the buoy finally gives way.
  • Hope Spot: Sending the scenic elevator down via gravity brake. Until...
  • Improbable Infant Survival: The only two children we see, Phillip and Angela, get down safely.
  • It's Probably Nothing: A temperature sensor actually picks up the fire as it starts, but is dismissed as a glitch in the system. As a result, the fire is allowed to grow unchecked in a janitorial room full of flammable material for hours before it finally breaks out when someone foolishly opens the door.
  • Jerkass: Roger Simmons. Right to the end his motivation is to save his own ass. His Karmic Death was his own fault.
  • Karma Houdini: Duncan, though compared to his son-in-law, he's more of The Atoner when he realizes how bad he's screwed up. Unlike his son-in-law, he owns up to his complicity in the fire and helps in the rescue.
  • Karmic Death: Simmons is the one most directly responsible for the fire's outbreak after having cut so many corners to save money on the building's electrical wiring. He further complicates the evacuation efforts in trying to get to the breeches buoy before everyone else, and commandeers it when the fire reaches their floor, pushing several innocent men to their deaths as they try to stop him. This ultimately gets him killed as the buoy is severed and sent plummeting with him still clinging to it.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Chief O'Halloran is clearly sick and tired of saving stupid people from the consequences of their own idiotic mistakes, but he still keeps charging into burning buildings.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Simmons, full-on.
  • Literal Cliffhanger:
    • Eleven people are stuck in the scenic elevator which is only held to the building by one cable.
    • Moreover, when O'Hallorhan tries to save these people, a fireman climbs on top of the elevator car to help him, but he slips and O'Hallorhan holds him by the hands to prevent him from falling.
  • Man on Fire: In a gigantic skyscraper on fire? Loads and loads. Along with women.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: While women do die in the film (such as Lisolette and Lorrie), the majority of the victims are men. Doubly so in the finale, where only men are left in the penthouse when the charges destroy the water tanks (all the women having been saved by breeches buoy beforehand), causing many of them to die getting swept out the windows by the water or in the ensuing chaos caused by the explosions.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Duncan and Roberts for their roles in making the skyscraper unsafe.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Horribly, horribly averted in the backstory.
  • Oh, Crap!: One of the firefighters on the way, upon being told that the fire is in the Glass Tower.
    "I sure hope that fire is on the first floor."
  • Precision F-Strike: "Oh, shit!," said by Chief O'Hallorhan when he realizes the top SFFD brass have no way to get him down from the top of the building after he sets the bombs to blow up the water tanks there to extinguish the fire.
    • Roberts uses one on Duncan when chewing him out about cutting corners on the building.
    • "Tie yourselves down, Goddammit!!!"
    • "Oh they'll find some dumb sonnuvabitch to do it."
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: The fire happens during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the tower.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: While the film was based on two novels, the events are also very similar to the Joelma fire in Sao Paulo, Brazil, earlier in 1974. As in the film, it was a fire in a skyscraper caused by an electrical fault, with the interior furnished with substandard materials and no fire suppression equipment.
  • Scenery Porn: The opening matte shots of the newly-completed Glass Tower and nearby Peerless Tower in Downtown San Francisco are quite impressive; the Glass Tower is a marvel in and of itself.
    • Quickly becomes Scenery Gorn once the fire breaks out, as we see the building rip itself apart from the inside out. By the time it's over, the Glass Tower is a burnt-out, monolithic husk.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Roberts and Chief O'Hallorhan. Both were essentially tough guys during their period in the movies, but McQueen was more commonly cast in "hardcore hero" roles.
  • Serial Escalation: Once the fire starts, the entire movie is an escalating series of bad situations, and most of the time, people die - some times, quite a few of them.
  • Significant Anagram: Meta. "The Towering Inferno", as is often noted, is an anagram of "not worth fire engine".
  • Skewed Priorities: It is Simmons' insistence on cutting back costs in the electrical installations that causes the inferno to break out, and he defends this decision even as the crisis has begun to escalate. He later tries to save his own skin ahead of the dozens of partygoers who are to evacuate ahead of him, which leads to his own death when the breeches buoy malfunctions.
    • Jim Duncan refuses to evacuate the top deck when he's informed that a fire has broken out on the eighty-first floor, confident that such an incident would not come to affect the festivities. He even tells Roberts to get his dress jacket when he just got done explaining that one of their own men has been burned. When Duncan finally does act on the warnings, he continues to downplay the scale of the crisis until it is apparent that the fire is truly out of control.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Once the fire starts, it's nearly non-stop for the rest of the film, with some well-timed blasts coming out of nowhere. Some quite spectacularly...and a few with devastating results.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: The developer James Duncan tries to thwart both the architect and the city's fire chief when they urge the top floor be evacuated during the opening gala due to the fire some stories below (it would clearly and embarrassingly undercut his previous public assertions that this record-breaking building was safe). Duncan even tries to pull rank on the fire chief by mentioning the presence of a U.S. senator; the chief retorts that in an emergency, he outranks everyone there.
  • Take Care of the Kids: An explosion knocks the scenic elevator off its track. Lisolette is holding Angela and shoves her into someone else's arms before the older woman falls from the glass elevator to her death.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Roberts and Chief O'Hallorhan dislike each other almost immediately, but they realize they need to cooperate to save lives. Develops into Fire-Forged Friends by the end of the film.
  • Those Two Guys: The two firefighters who volunteer to go up the stairs.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The men are looking to see where a fire alarm is being triggered from, and one man proceeds to just open the door on a closet (which, as it turns out, is where the fire is) without checking the door to see if it's hot. The head of maintenance, Will Geddings, tries to stop him, and instead gets burned.
    • You could also say this for the crowd of people who charge blindly into an elevator immediately after Duncan warns them that the fire would cause them to open up where the inferno is. Needless to say, it does not end well for them.
    • Simmons and the other men who try to overcrowd the breeches buoy mere seconds after being told the fire department had a plan to put out the fire. Had they waited, they probably would have lived.
  • Water Tower Down: The fire is resolved by blowing up the huge water tanks on the top of the building.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • So what happened to Wes (the utility guy) and all the people in the power room? And what became of Maureen McGovern?
    • The power room was below the floors where the fire started, so they were just evacuated with everyone else.
    • Almost happens, but averted at the very end with Jernigan and the cat. We see Jernigan save the cat early in the film, he's still in the building when we last see him, but don't see either again until the very end.
    • Maureen McGovern was evacuated safely. All of the women were already evacuated from the party room before Roger Simmons tried to cut in line and fell to his death with the breeches buoy.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: O'Hallorhan gives one of these to Roberts. Later Roberts gives one to Duncan, and Duncan gives one to Roger, who fires back with one of his own.