‘The Towering Inferno’ Review: Breaking The Mold

Posted in Screening Room by - March 03, 2015

The Towering Inferno might be the first disaster movie that I’ve watched that I actually enjoyed. A fair amount of the credit for the success of the film goes to two of the stalwarts of cinema: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Newman and McQueen bring a certain level of gravitas that isn’t present in most of the disaster movies that are released. Newman won one Oscar and was nominated for 10 others, and McQueen was also nominated for an Oscar but starred in such classics as Bullitt and The Great Escape. They elevate the typical disaster movie to something that deserved to be nominated for Best Picture; Inferno is something of an anomaly in the disaster film genre. 

The setup of the film is disaster movies 101: a believed indestructible 138 story skyscraper slowly begins to burst into flames due to faulty wiring during the inaugural opening. The fire starts in a utility closet and soon spreads to the other floors of the building, causing widespread panic throughout. It’s then up to Newman, McQueen, and the noble San Francisco firefighters to stop the flames before they completely destroy the building and kill all of the guests. It’s a classic race against time.

Newman plays Doug Roberts, the architect of the building while McQueen plays Mike O’Halloran, the chief of the 5th SFFD Battalion. While they don’t share much on-screen time, due mainly to the fact that both Newman and McQueen believed they deserved top-billing, whenever they are on-screen their chemistry is believable. I did enjoy watching them apart though, since they both do a great job of being heroic in their own right. If this film was missing one or the other, I’m not sure if it would be nearly as successful as it is, since they are such fantastic performers.

However, as much as I loved Newman and McQueen, the real standout and true surprise of the film is Fred Astaire as Harlee Claiborne, a con-man looking to make some quick cash. Fred Astaire isn’t known for his acting ability but instead for his contributions to the art of dance on film. However, he shines in this film as the con-man who has a change of heart when he falls in love with his mark. He was one of the three characters that I was invested in throughout the entirety of the film along with Newman and McQueen. His performance is nuanced and one of the best in the film. Not surprisingly, he was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, however he did not win. 

The effects in the film also should be mentioned, as any effect that involves real fire is quite impressive and obviously dangerous. There are few sets in the film that aren’t on fire or slowly becoming engulfed in flames. There are even a couple times when characters are lit on fire, which is still insane that any stunt man would be willing to go through that. It’s an impressive feat that the actors were able to perform under these conditions. Along with the sets, there are also some really dramatic stunts in the film, including a scenic elevator being attached to helicopter and flown down to the ground. There is something to be said for the use of practical effects, as it adds to the realism and intensity of the film. 

The Towering Inferno was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. That alone should speak volumes to the perceived quality of the film. While the Academy doesn’t always get it right, I have to agree with the nomination. Inferno might be the best disaster movie ever made as it not only takes a vanilla concept and elevates it to something worth watching., but it also features some fantastic performances from some of cinema’s biggest names, along with a truly standout turn from Fred Astaire.

Final Say: Watch It

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Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He's a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You'll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.
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