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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. (Or Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, depending on how you view the billing.)

The Towering Inferno was the first Hollywood movie to come from two major studios — it was a joint 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; and 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 of 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). So 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 gala is being held in San Francisco to celebrate the dedication 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) authorized 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's cut so many corners that the building's wiring is already showing signs of overload. It doesn't help that Simmons is also Duncan's son-in-law. Duncan is so busy glad-handing and attempting to court Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn), to secure funding through the Urban Renewal Committee (which Parker chairs) for the construction of more skyscrapers, that he doesn't have time to share Roberts' concerns.

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


The Towering Inferno features examples of:

  • 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, both 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
      • Craig Barton, the architect character in this novel. Certain elements are included in Doug Roberts, as played by Newman.
      • Wyndom Leroux, who built the building. His cost-cutting elements are included in Holden's Jim Duncan character.
      • 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 teammate 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
      • Nat Wilson and Zib Wilson, though elements of Nat are carried over into the role of Doug Roberts (discovering the changes to the electrical contracts in the building,) as played by Newman, and elements of Zib are included in the role of Susan, as played by Dunaway.
      • Bert McGraw, who built the building. Elements of the character (specifically his being the father of Patty Simmons,) are incorporated into the Jim Duncan character played by Holden.
      • 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. However, some of the elements of the Jake Peters character are carried over into Vaughn's role as Sen. Gary Parker, including his assistance in loading the breeches buoy, though Vaughn is younger than the novel counterpart.
      • 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, largely by getting completely intoxicated.
      • 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 possesses 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. Elements of the characters are included in the roles of Firemen Powers and Scott, played by Orsati and Perry.
      • 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 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.
    • Also, Doug Roberts, who is based on the characters of Nat Wilson and Craig Barton from the novels. Roberts has to help Lisolette and the children to the Promenade Room after they are unable to evacuate, and ends up trapped and coordinating rescue efforts. While they assist with rescue operations in the books, neither of the novel counterparts end up trapped in the building, nor do they perform any personal rescues as depicted in the film.
    • Inverted with Simmons. While the character cut costs on the electrical in both the novel and the film, the film hints that he did so at the behest of Duncan due to cost overruns. The novel version does it deliberately without anyone's knowledge, then tries to frame someone else for the cost cutting by forging their signature on the change orders, because he's having an affair with the man's wife.
  • 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. Subverted in the sense that unlike The Poseidon Adventure, which kills off main protagonist Frank Scott (Hackman) shortly before the film's end, none of the film's first tier billed stars (Newman, McQueen, Holden, or Dunaway) are killed off before the credits roll.
  • Arduous Descent to Terra Firma: The characters are on the top floor of a high-rise office building that is on fire and must make their way to the ground floor and safety.
  • 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 later he commandeers it in the confusion. In the struggle that ensues he deliberately kicks two men rushing to stop him to their deaths (one of them being Sen. Parker, who accidentally got carried out trying to stop him,) 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!
    • Also, Doug Roberts. Despite the fact that the substandard materials were used without his knowledge, while he was away viewing another potential project, he blames himself for what happened and this also seems to fuel him slightly in his efforts to help the others.
    Roberts: The building code...Oh Jesus. Building code. Come on, Dunc. I mean that's a standard cop-out when you're in trouble. See, I was crawlin' around up there. I mean duct holes weren't fire stopped. Corridors without fire doors in it...The sprinklers won't work. And an electrical system that's good for what? I mean it's good for startin' fires! Hoo boy, where was I when all this was goin' on? Because I'm just as guilty as you and that GOD DAMN son-in-law of yours...What do they call it when you kill people?
  • 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 their mayor, and one U.S. state loses its sitting U.S. Senator. It's unknown whether Sen. Parker is actually a senator from California, or another state. His presence at the party is because Duncan is trying to coax him into giving him funding though the Urban Renewal Committee Parker is the Chairman of. Whatever the case, the film kills him off. It's also bittersweet because both the mayor and senator were Action Politicians.
    • Also, after surviving the explosions and millions of gallons of water being dumped on him, Harlee Claiborne makes it to the lobby only to discover that Lisolette Mueller was killed and isn't waiting for him. He initially refuses to believe it until Jernigan presses Lisolette's cat Elke into his arms. The look of sudden acceptance on his face says it all.
    • A less noticable one: The "First Woman in the Buoy's" husband is one of the three people that end up hanging onto the breeches buoy after it slips out the window, and he dies when it falls.
  • 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 fiancĂ© 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, though based on the final conversation between Doug and the chief, it seems that Doug may not be going to the countryside after all, and instead may focus on making safe buildings with input from the chief.
  • 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. Not very successfully.
  • 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. Later, Lori gets set on fire when she tries to open a window for ventilation with the fire outside the door.
  • 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, but some of that is on Duncan as well, as he suggested cost-cutting.
  • 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 tenant. 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. Made even worse by the fact that she was one of the initial evacuees from the tower room, but correctly assumed that the Allbrights missed the evacuation warning. Because she went to their floor to warn them (if she hadn't, they'd likely have died,) she is forced to return to the promenade room with Roberts and the children, which unfortunately results in her being in the scenic elevator at the worst possible time.
    • The water tank explosions to douse the fire at the end kill many people in their own right, most notably Carlos the bartender and Mayor Ramsay.
  • Dedication: TO THOSE WHO GIVE THEIR LIVES SO THAT OTHERS MIGHT LIVE—- TO THE FIRE FIGHTERS OF THE WORLD—- THIS PICTURE IS GRATEFULLY DEDICATED.
  • 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.
    • Also, Sen. Parker (Sen. Jake Peters in the novel) is a bigger participant in the book than the film. Vaughn gets a fair amount of screen time but very little dialogue after he suggests using the stairs to escape.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Bigelow, Lisolette, Sen. Parker and Simmons to name a few. They all die, as well as a number of lower tiered characters, including Mayor Ramsay and Carlos.
  • Diagonal Billing: The Trope Codifier, created to assuage the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman starring in the same movie, though, as you can see in the poster at the top of the page, it ended up being more like Trapezoidal Billing, with William Holden and Faye Dunaway having their names placed slightly lower on the right side.
  • Didn't Think This Through: After pretty much establishing that the wiring in the building is faulty, Duncan has no problem with having EVERY LIGHT IN THE BUILDING turned on for the grand opening ceremony. When Roberts and Giddings are doing their wiring inspection, Roberts grasps a conduit and it almost burns his hand. When he finds out from Wes that all the lights were turned on, he's mad as Hell. While the film focuses solely on the store room fire on 81, it's not difficult to assume that the fire ended up sparking on the floor Dan and Lorrie were on due to that earlier overload.
    • Also, confusingly Duncan reams Simmons a new one when Simmons confirms that he did indeed wire the building with materials that were less than what Roberts' specs ordered. What makes it fall under here is the fact that only a few scenes later, Simmons gets right back in Duncan's face, mentioning how Duncan asked him if he could shave money off of his electrical budget, and also mentioning that Duncan shaved off millions of dollars elsewhere. It basically turns into a What the Hell, Hero? moment, since not only is Duncan guilty of his own cost-cutting, but the suggestion for Simmons to cut his own costs down came from Duncan himself, and makes the audience wonder why Duncan chewed Simmons out in the first place.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Sen. Gary Parker (Jake Peters in the novel) is killed when he accidentally gets pulled out with the breeches buoy trying to prevent Simmons from taking it, and being pushed to his death by Simmons. Mayor Robert Ramsay dies in the water tank explosion sequence. In the novel they both feature in, they're one of the many casualties of smoke inhalation, and both basically die unseen.
  • Dirty Coward: Roger Simmons, who takes the lift before his turn and pushes Senator Parker (Who was trying to stop him) and another man clinging to it to their deaths, and attempts to push off another man before the rope snaps and they both fall.
  • 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.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: After everything Lisolette Mueller does to help in the film, her sudden death in the film strikes a sour note.
    • Also, Poor Carlos, who's as selfless as Lisolette is. It doesn't save him in the finale when the water tanks explode.
    • Sen. Parker and Mayor Ramsay also qualify. Parker gets ignobly pushed to his death, and Ramsay, a moment after starting to relax during the final water tank explosion sequence, gets hit by a powerful blast of water from out of nowhere which snaps the rope tying him down, and sends him plunging into the huge fountain, where he drowns, or is killed by the fall.
  • 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. Also The fire makes the express elevators useless during the top floor evacuation, and when the electrical system fails halfway through the film, the scenic elevator, at that point the only functioning elevator remaining, becomes virtually useless, and is only able to be of use once more when Roberts rigs it to make one final trip to the plaza through gravity.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: All the action unfolds over the course of a single day/evening.
  • Fight to Survive: A lot of people in a burning building trying to not die.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The opening has a number of examples in addition to 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").
    • 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.
    • The creepiest bit of foreshadowing occurs right after the reveal that Dan and Lorie are lovers. A few strains of "We May Never Love Like This Again," play via electric piano on the soundtrack while they kiss. What makes it creepy is that it's accurate. Both characters end up being killed off shortly afterwards, and thus they truly never do "love like this again."
    • In a deleted scene, Jim Duncan reveals to Sen. Parker and the rest of the group that while the building has three scenic elevators, only one is operational, leading Sen. Parker to quip that he hopes Duncan guides them to the right one. Once the express elevators are rendered useless due to the fire in the central core, the remaining trapped party goers are hampered in their evacuation because the scenic elevator moves up and down a lot more slowly than the express elevator, and because the other two scenic elevators are not operational, instead of evacuating 36 people at a time, they can only evacuate 12 people at a time, rather slowly. Then the power goes out and they can't even evacuate at all.
  • From Bad to Worse:
    • Once the express elevator is put out of commission, the probability of survival grows dimmer and dimmer for the remaining trapped guests as both other escape options (The scenic elevator and the breeches buoy) end up being rendered useless by the middle of the third act. By the end, they're reduced to blowing the water tanks to dump a million gallons of water on the fire and tying themselves down in the desperate hope the water won't wash them out the windows. While some survive, many don't.
    • Also happens with Dan and Lorrie. The fire is big when they first notice it, but there's a possibility they might have made the stairs if they left then. They end up waiting, and the fire spreads to the interior of Dan Bigelow's office, meaning that when he makes his desperate escape attempt, he has to run through TWO rooms that are engulfed in flames. Bigelow doesn't make it, and Lorrie dies shortly after.
  • 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.
  • The Great Fire: The film concerns a giant fire in a glass highrise and efforts to stop the fire and get survivors out safely.
  • 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, Simmons, and Roberts 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.
    • In fairness, Doug Roberts shares the least in this. He left Duncan with detailed plans calling for better materials than were actually installed, and his only failure is going off site to work on another project before The Glass Tower was completed. Based on the opening of the film, it's clear that Roberts and Duncan have a strong working relationship and friendship, and he clearly seems to have left the project early simply because he assumed (and thought he could trust) Duncan to follow his plans to the letter. Duncan simply didn't.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Sending the scenic elevator down via gravity brake. Until...
    • It looks like they may be able to evacuate people by helicopter, until two women panic and run into its landing spot, making it crash and stopping any further attempts with the roof on fire.
    • For Bigelow and his secretary/lover Lorrie. Bigelow thinks he can pull off a Heroic Sacrifice, running through the flames to search for the firemen to save Lorrie. He gives her a last smile, too, before going. We start to think he might really do it. And then the aforementioned aversion of Convection, Schmonvection happens and he burns alive in a matter of seconds. She follows quickly.
    • When Simmons commandeers the breeches buoy, Sen. Parker and Mayor Ramsey immediately rush to stop him and get him out so the next survivor in order can go. Parker even gets a hold of the breeches buoy and attempts to pull Simmons out of it, and pull it further inside so Simmons can't use it, but because of the combined weight of Parker, Simmons, and two other would-be mutineers on the buoy, the hauling rope gets too heavy for the men holding the lines to keep it inside. It slips out the window with all four men on it, and poor Parker gets murdered by Simmons in Simmons' own efforts to save himself.
  • 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, and his last action before he dies is to murder the U.S. Senator trying to stop him. His Karmic Death was his own fault.
    • To a lesser extent, Jim Duncan, at least in the beginning. He's warned by Roberts that there's a fire on 81 but refuses to take action due to the optics until O'Halloran shows up and forces his hand. This is somewhat subverted however, as once O'Halloran does get him to start evacuating, Duncan really steps up to the plate and (assisted by Sen. Parker and Mayor Ramsey) does as much as he can to get people out of the promenade room and to safety.
  • 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.
    • Also, The two unnamed women who panic and rush the helipad (after Roberts expressly warned them not to) which causes the pilots to veer off, get caught in the wind, and die when the helicopter explodes. Not only do they survive, Roberts seems to have no problem letting them take up space in the final journey of the scenic elevator, despite the fact that their actions were almost entirely the reason the attempts to evacuate by helicopter were abandoned.
  • 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 the innocent Sen. Parker and two of the men attempting to assist him in his mutiny to their deaths as they get stuck clinging to it after it slips out the window. 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.
    • After a gas leak explosion in a stairwell blows apart several floors worth of stairs that Roberts, Lisolette, and the Allbright children are using to evacuate, Roberts slips and slides down the twisted metal railing and barely manages to stop himself before he runs out of railing to grasp and he falls to his death. Phillip Allbright and Lisolette have to traverse it for roughly two floors to get to the 83rd floor, and Roberts goes back up it and down it to get Angela Allbright to safety.
    • Sen. Parker and two other men end up hanging onto the breeches buoy 235 floors up after it slips out the window with them holding on. Simmons, safely in the seat, pushes Parker and one other off befire the rope breaks and he and the final guy go down with it.
  • 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 Simmons for their roles in making the skyscraper unsafe. Roberts to a much lesser extent. He leaves the project before it is complete, trusting Duncan and the contractors to follow his specs, but they don't, and he only finds out the day he gets back just how much they've ignored or cost cut on his original designs. It seems Roberts and Duncan have a long history of working together with no issues, so it clearly never occurred to Roberts that Duncan would ever cost cut as extremely as he did.
  • Navel-Deep Neckline: Susan's evening gown has a neckline that plunges to her navel. Some other female guests at the party have similar outfits.
  • 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."
    • Doug's and Susan's reactions to the helicopter explosion on the roof. Similar reactions are shown on the faces of Duncan, Ramsey, and Parker when they see the flaming helicopter wreckage falling down in front of the promenade room windows.
    • Sen. Parker when he realizes the breeches buoy has traveled outside of the relative safety of the promenade room, and he's clinging to the side of it 235 floors above the ground. Considering Simmons immediately murders him by shoving him off, Parker's reaction was warranted.
    • O'Halloran's reaction when the city's fire chief and deputy inform him that not only are they relying on him to take the necessary charges to the roof to blow up the water tanks in an attempt to drown the fire, but that once he's up there, they have no way to get him back down, and he's going to have to ride out the wave of water with the rest of the trapped people in the tower room.
    O'Halloran: How do I get back down? *silence* Oh SHIT.
  • 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. "I'm just as guilty as you and that GOD DAMN son-in-law of yours."
    • Sen. Parker gets a small one when Simmons and his mutinous group attempt to commandeer the breeches buoy. "You crazy bastards! Get off this line!"
    • Mayor Ramsey as they prepare for the water tanks to be blown. "Tie yourselves down, Goddammit!!!"
    • O'Halloran to Roberts when Roberts asks how they plan to get the explosives to the top of the building to blow the water tanks. "Oh they'll find some dumb sonnuvabitch to do it."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: In the initial shooting script, Mayor Ramsey was going to die when the breeches buoy falls, and Senator Parker was supposed to be killed off during the exploding water tank sequence. Due to his role being cut down during filming, and due to his desire to marry future wife Linda Staab, Robert Vaughn asked that the deaths of the characters be flip-flopped so he could leave the production sooner and marry Staab. This is likely the reason why it's the only time in the film where two second-tier stars (Vaughn and Richard Chamberlain) essentially die at the same time. All of the other major star deaths are spaced out, or include third-tier billed characters (such as Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery both dying moments apart.
  • 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.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Dan Bigelow. He's played by Robert Wagner, he's closely tied with Jim Duncan, and he has a secret, yet sweet relationship with his secretary. He's killed off barely an hour into the film to shock the audience and let them know that no one is safe.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Senator Gary Parker. He's essentially murdered by Simmons when the breeches buoy falls out the window and Simmons is trying to eliminate the added weight. Plus, his death occurs right before the breeches buoy falls, and eliminates the only other means of escape beyond the blowing up of the water tanks, which means that the remaining men in the promenade room literally HAVE to rely on the water tank explosion plan to have any hope to survive. It's the last major sequence before the film's main finale.
  • 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.
  • Sex Signals Death: 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.
  • 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.
    • Also, while Duncan touts the building's "many modern safety features," to O'Halloran, many of them are notably absent either due to cost cutting, or due to being neglected in the haste to get the building open. As Roberts points out to Duncan later, duct holes have no fire stops, a fan in the room that initially catches fire should have reversed to prevent feeding the fire oxygen, but it doesn't, and thus fans the flames instead. The sprinklers on the floor where the initial fire is and in other parts of the building fail to function, and corridors have no fire doors, all of which turn the building into a tinderbox. While the film doesn't explicitly state why the equipment is absent or non-functional, it's hinted that it's due to Duncan's attempts to cost-cut the project due to lack of funds to complete it.
  • 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.
    • Especially present in the finale, where Roberts and O'Halloran use C-4 explosives to not only blow the water tanks, but to blow the floors underneath them so the water can flow down through the building and put out the fire. Two huge explosions occur right before the deaths of Carlos and Mayor Ramsay, and the first topples a statue above the bar, which breaks and crushes Carlos' chest.
  • 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 as well as San Francisco's mayor; 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.
    • Dan Bigelow. After remembering that he switched off the phones, he then waits and allows the fire to spread from the outer office into his own interior office. This means that when he decides to make a run for it to get help, he has to run through two burning rooms instead of one. While the outcome may have been the same, Bigelow would have stood a much better chance of pulling off his heroic run if he'd done so when the fire was limited just to the outer reception area of 65. Because he waited, he's in flames almost immediately when he enters his own office, and is almost fully engulfed by the time he makes it to the outer office and collapses.
    • Many of the firefighters also qualify, as they keep hosing the ceiling while the floor is still on fire to light it up all over again. No wonder they couldn't stop it, and then they burnt.
  • Took a Level in Badass: While it didn't work out for him at all, you have to give props to Dan Bigelow for making it through his burning office and into the burning reception area while engulfed in flames before it finally became too much to overcome and he dies. He almost makes you believe that, while he's going to be horribly burned in consequence, he's going to pull it off.
    • Doug Roberts is presented as a city boy architect who isn't cut out to tackle a project where there's nothing to do. He ends up having to climb up and down a twisted metal railing to get Angela to safety when the stairs blow up, he makes his way around the flaming machinery room below the roof to cut enough systems to allow the scenic elevator to make one final trip to the plaza, and O'Halloran builds up enough trust in Roberts' abilities that he doesn't hesitate to include him in his plans to blow the water tanks, relying on Roberts' architectural knowledge to place the necessary C-4 charges to blow the floors under the water tanks unsupervised.
    • Senator Parker single-handedly attempts to prevent Simmons from cutting in line and remove him from the breeches buoy. It doesn't work out for him, but he attempted to do the right thing.
  • Water Tower Down: The ending has the heroes blowing up a set of huge water tanks at the top of the building in an attempt to extinguish the fire. It's what finally puts out the fire.
  • 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.

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