“Architect.” That’s San Francisco Fire Chief Steve McQueen’s tidy one-word put-down of Paul Newman, who in The Towering Inferno has designed the world’s tallest tinderbox, a 138-story steel-and-glass monstrosity with faulty wiring. The Towering Inferno (1974) was dedicated to America’s firefighters, and in its final scene—when the flames have been put out and the body count has been kept to an acceptable minimum—McQueen grudgingly gives Newman his due, but not before warning him, “One of these days, they’re going to kill 10,000 in one of these fire traps.”
Obviously, it won’t be easy to put a certain recent historical event out of mind when viewing The Towering Inferno, one of three disaster movies playing in MOMA’s “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters” series (it screens this afternoon and Saturday), along with Earthquake (1974) and The Swarm (1978). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Directed by the neglected John Guillerman and produced by Master of Disaster Irwin Allen, who also shot the movie’s action sequences, it’s an overlooked touchstone of Me Decade cinema.
Disaster movies, as popular today as ever, have been a staple of American culture since the 1950s, when the sort of alien invasion pictures Burton himself parodied in Mars Attacks! were a hit with Cold War audiences. Still, it’s not accidental that the three movies Burton selected are all from the 1970s, the undisputed heyday of the American disaster pic.
With the breakdown of the traditional studio system in those years—a phenomenon that produced the Scorsese/DePalma/Spielberg generation—a number of fading but legendary actors were no longer under contract, as they had been for most of their careers. This meant they could be hired on the relative cheap and get paired with hot up-and-comers, often in startling combinations. In The Swarm, Michael Caine, mentored by Henry Fonda, clashes with Richard Widmark; in The Poseidon Adventure Shelley Winters goes swimming with Gene Hackman; and in The Towering Inferno, O.J. Simpson delivers a rescued cat to the arms of Fred Astaire. Of course, Roland Emmerich’s movies—Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012—also make room for large casts. But most of his actors, even the leads, are B-listers, and his biggest stars can’t hold a candle to their 1970s counterparts. Will Smith, I hesitate to even say it, is no Paul Newman, even as O.J. Simpson is no Bill Pullman.
Bridging two separate Hollywood golden ages, 1970s disaster movies were a utopian fantasy in their very form, and their plots, of ordinary people joining together for the common good in times of great adversity, harkened back to the era of liberal consensus so recently destroyed by the coming of Nixonland. While Nashville and Taxi Driver announced the dissolution of American life, movies like The Poseidon Adventure, Avalanche, and the much-spoofed Airport series, were trying to hold onto an idea of the Union.
Guillerman’s sneered-at, misunderstood 1976 remake of King Kong is still his masterpiece, and easily the most underrated blockbuster of the decade, but The Towering Inferno is an equally accomplished work of journeyman filmmaking. In addition to disaster-standard Sensurround, and stunts and effects that still look impressive (real explosions, kids, not CGI), it has first-rate actors bringing it to the melodrama (William Holden, as a self-loathing real estate developer, was in his late-career prime) as well as some haunting widescreen cinematography—especially the aerial views of the building on fire, above the Bay, at night. I’ll say this as plainly as I can. The vast majority of 1970s disaster movies—this includes Earthquake and The Swarm, as well as things like Rollercoaster—are only enjoyable as camp. The Towering Inferno is an actually good film.
Snobs everywhere must have gone nuts when The Towering Inferno won Best Cinematography and Best Editing at the Oscars, defeating the year’s other Faye Dunaway picture, a period drama called Chinatown. I’m not arguing that Guillerman’s film is the better work of art, per se, but as a mirror of its times, it’s less distorted by nostalgia than Polanksi’s soft-lit Southern California remembrances. And anyone unmoved by The Towering Inferno’s corny but sincerely felt democratic spirit ought to compare it to John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), an unacknowledged remake in which a vigilante cop supplants the fireman as our hero, and a terrorist steps in for the greedy capitalist as our ultimate villain.