Note: because I want this website to include most of my writing, I'm going to start moving things from my old blog to this one. If you're one of the two people whose followed my writing over the past couple of years, you've probably seen it before. For those of you who haven't, I offer my humble opinions on what was, at the time, for me, The Greatest Film Ever Made.
WARNING: This essay is one big spoiler. If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know what happens, just see the movie first. I would like to point out, however, that the title, The Towering Inferno, kind of gives away a sizable chunk of the plot.
I was just the right age when the Greatest Film Ever came out.
Every nine year-old--at least every nine year-old when I was growing up--had a Greatest Film Ever. Said film had a unique characteristic: it was, quite simply, the Greatest Film Ever. Consequently, when referring to said film, my nine year-old peers and I would describe said film thusly: "it's The Greatest Film Ever."
Generally speaking, these were films where things either burst into flames or blew up. Also, in these films, people often blew things up.
And once again, and I cannot state this enough: things blew up. They blew up real good. Oh, yeah.
I'm afraid I'm going to get nostalgic. Before kids spent their entire afternoons playing Halo or Skyrim or Team Fortress or Call of Duty, they did this thing called pretending. Granted, nine year-olds of my generation spent a lot of time watching television in the afternoon, but we did actually get out from time to time, and we pretended.
Pretending went this way: you pretended. You pretended you were someone else, and your friends pretended they were someone else, too. A lot of times, a Greatest Film Ever provided the inspiration for pretending.
Sometimes a person's Greatest Film Ever was a movie that came out long before we were born. For example, when my friend Michael Bacal and I would play at his house, we would act out The Guns of Navarone, because, for Michael, The Guns of Navarone, which came out in 1961 (five years before we were born), was the greatest film ever. He always wanted to be Gregory Peck, and I had no problem with this; I got to be David Niven.
In retrospect, it was a shrewd move, as David Niven has all the good lines in that film and gets to blow everything up. This made him aces in my book, particularly considering that when I was nine I was going through an awesome pyromania phase, blowing up ant hills with firecrackers and imagining that there was this television reporter ant saying "I'm here at a scene of unspeakable carnage." Michael, meanwhile, blew up his models with the highly flammable rubber cement with which he glued them together.
I ought to point out here that I actually had eclectic tastes that forecast the kind of Joe Sensitive guy I'd turn out to be. I watched films with my dad, but I watched films with my mom, too, and I loved musicals and romances like Breakfast at Tiffany's. These were great films, and I always loved watching them when they were on.
But as great as these films were, none of them were the Greatest Film Ever.
Again: I actually had friends who were girls, and I actually would have been one of the few young males in the 1970s to play the board game Mystery Date had it not been for the fact that the game was a hand me down from my friend's older sister, and that a bunch of the pieces--not to mention the rules--were missing. And yes, I did indeed play house.
It just that...well, playing house was not the same as blowing things up, or saving people after other things blew up or burst into flames. Sweetness, sensitivity, empathy....these are all fine things, and I like to think that I developed these things as I grew up. So yes, I played with girls...but I did wish that maybe just once in a while, instead of playing house, they'd want to be Irene Papas in The Guns of Navarone and stand a post.
In other words, what I'm saying is this: when I was nine years old, The Towering Inferno was The Greatest Film Ever.
I can still recite the ad copy from the television commercial: "Steve McQueen and Paul Newman RACE AGAINST TIME as one tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense." And indeed, it was. Oh, yes.
This film came out in 1974. I was nine. It was the reason for living.
Though the pacing is slow compared to today's hyperactive action films, it's a genuinely good film, of a genre that was way popular in the 1970s: the disaster movie. A name that became synonymous with disaster movies is Irwin Allen, who produced a number of fun TV shows from the 1960s: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; The Time Tunnel; Land of the Giants; and, of course, Lost in Space. Allen also made a name for himself directing the action sequences of two classic disaster movies: Inferno (the director of the non-action sequences was an excellent director named John Guillermin), and The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame--a superb director and screenwriter whose credits included such films as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations--handled the non-action sequences in this one).
The plot is simple (Read: The Towering Inferno): Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, an architect who has designed this huge skyscraper for a multi-gazillionaire named Jim Duncan (William Holden). Unfortunately, we learn, Duncan gave the job of building the thing to his scuzzy son-in-law, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who cut corners to save money. In doing so, we learn, Simmons created an incredibly hazardous electrical system that generates far too much heat, and has, in effect, turned the building into a firetrap.
The film takes place on the evening of a building dedication party, way up on the 135th floor. Given the title of the film, you've probably guessed by now that things do not go as planned.
And that's it. You really don't need to know any more.
Well, okay, there is one more thing, but before we get to that thing, we need to discuss Paul Newman, and the major theme of the movie.
When we meet Paul Newman at the beginning of the movie, he's having a really good time with Faye Dunaway, who plays his girlfriend, Susan Franklin. And hey, that's a good thing: Faye Dunaway was, at the time, one of the most absolutely drop-dead gorgeous women on the planet. For a young man who's put away such childish things as playing pretend, Faye Dunaway is a really nice step up.
But that's just it: when I saw The Towering Inferno, I wasn't ready to put away childish things, because I was a child. And at the beginning of the film, all I could think was: great, Paul Newman is an utter wuss in this film.
Yes, I thought, sitting there in the United Artists Cinema 150 in Syosset (which has since become an Equinox health club), Paul Newman isn't an action hero in this film. He isn't cool the way he was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. All I thought was: great, he's just going to spend the whole film being Faye Dunaway's boyfriend.
But then, quite wonderfully, all that changes. And of course, what causes it to change is that beloved agent that goes hand in hand with the rule that, in The Greatest Film Ever, things must blow up: fire.
Oh, glorious fire. Explosions. Death. Destruction.
And it's clear, as the film goes on, that all that wussy romance stuff doesn't belong, because the boys have taken over. Robert Wagner plays this guy named Bigelow who's romancing his secretary, Lorrie, played by Susan Flannery. He dies, and so does she.
Not only that, but Robert Wagner dies like a complete tool. He tells his secretary that he's going to run out of the office though the walls of flames that now stand between them and the elevator, boasting about how fast he ran in high school.
We hear an all-strings refrain of the film's kitchy love song "We May Never Love this Way Again," a Maureen McGovern song we heard earlier in the film, which, immediately, for an obsessive fan of these things, echoes McGovern's number 1 hit "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure.
Wagner leaves the office, runs two steps...and then promptly crashes into a table, which causes him to go up like a protesting Buddhist monk.
Lorrie, meanwhile, choking on smoke, throws a chair through a window to get some fresh air, which cause the flames to immediately shoot toward the open window, engulfing Lorrie in flames and hurling her out the window.
Awesome. Simply awesome.
Clearly, the film is saying, we don't have time for this pansy lovey-dovey stuff. Things are burning. Things are blowing up.
As this nine year-old would have told you in 1974, we need heroes.
In other words, we need a fireman.
This is why, for me, back in that movie theater, there was, in an uncertain world, one irrefutable fact:
Steve McQueen was God.
McQueen plays San Francisco Fire Department Chief Michael O'Hallorhan, and from the moment he enters the film it's almost as if Paul Newman resdiscovers his inner child.
Suddenly, Paul Newman becomes cool: he rescues a woman (Jennifer Jones) who's baby sitting two kids; he proves himself to be an acrobat when the stairway blows up due to a gas explosion, which causes him to tumble down the twisted metal of the wrecked bannister so that he must climb back up and help the woman and the two kids climb down; he climbs around an elevator shaft so that he can go through the ceiling and around a door blocked with cement; he rigs up a scenic elevator so a couple of people ride it down via gravity.
Incidentally, Jennifer Jones dies as well when she falls out of the scenic elevator. Earlier, we've seen her in a tender romantic scene with Fred Astaire, who plays a con man, and from that moment, we know she's a goner. Basically, in this film, if you're involved romantically with anyone, you're toast, unless you have Steve McQueen's protective force field of coolness to protect you.
And man, does McQueen just pile on the cool. McQueen insisted that his character have exactly the same number of lines of dialogue as Newman, and considering that he doesn't appear until 40 minutes in the film, he has a lot of catching up to do. That means he does a lot of the talking while Newman does a lot of the listening. And through it all, it's almost as if this authoritative coolness mojo spreads to Newman, who just becomes cooler by the minute.
And Newman needs to be cool, because he and McQueen have a mission: in order to put out the fire, they must detonate a series of water tanks on the top floor of the building. This, in so many ways, made the film some sort of cosmic experience for me when I was nine. Not only had I seen fire, explosions, and the incineration of countless wusses, but I was treated to what made this film, for me, The Greatest Film Ever: a conclusion to a film about fire, death and destruction in which the way to save everybody is to blow stuff up.
Finally, at the end, we see the bond a nine year-old in 1974 was waiting for: surrogates for him and his best friend, up there staring fire in the face and making it back down. And Paul Newman, by this point, has redeemed himself for his wussiness early on in the film: though McQueen knows how to rig explosives, it's Newman who knows where they need to place them.
After placing the explosives, they have to run back down, and it's just...it's just glorious stuff. Newman has the air tank, and McQueen is wearing the flame resistant suit, and they're going back and forth, Newman giving McQueen air so that McQueen can hold a door against a wall of flames so that Newman can run past it.
This was fodder for more childhood reenactments with my friends than I can even count.
So everybody ties themselves down, John William's music swells with the lower brass beating out steady quarter notes as the higher brass takes you through the the first two sixteenth notes of each measure.
How many times did my friends and I sing "DUH-DUH (tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick), DUH-DUH (tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick)?" Many times. Many, many times.
And it's just a monumental explosion. Water everywhere. Flames slowly dying.
It's Miller time.
And it's almost as if, having proved himself, we don't mind that Paul Newman snuggles up to Faye Dunaway. He deserves it.
But it's not as if McQueen is going to let him go soft. He tells him that they were lucky, they only lost about 200, but one day, 10,000 people are gonna die in these firetraps until someone asks the fire department how to build those things.
All right, Newman says, I'm askin'.
In other words, Newman will get romantic with Faye Dunaway, but if Steve McQueen ever comes calling so that they can blow stuff up, Newman won't let him down.
For a nine year-old, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the end of a perfect movie.