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Paul Newman and Steve McQueen lead an all-star cast in The Towering Inferno

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen fight a fierce fire and corporate greed in The Towering Inferno

THE TOWERING INFERNO (John Guillermin, 1974)
Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, August 19, 8:15, and Wednesday, August 23, 3.30
Series runs August 18-24

Disaster flicks were a big thing in the 1970s, and none was bigger than The Towering Inferno. The $14.3 million epic, the first coproduction between two major studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century-Fox, was based on two novels, Richard Martin Stern’s The Tower and Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Glass Inferno and stars a host of Hollywood greats, led by the dynamic duo of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Newman is recently retired architect Doug Roberts, who has come back to San Francisco for the opening-night party celebrating the final building he designed, the 138-story Glass Tower, owned by wealthy businessman James Duncan (William Holden). When a small electrical fire starts in a storage room on the eighty-first floor, Roberts becomes suspicious that Duncan’s son-in-law, smarmy electrical engineer Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), did not follow the specs exactly and cut critical corners. As the fire grows, security chief Harry Jernigan (O. J. Simpson) calls in the fire department, anchored by battalion chief Mike O’Hallorhan (McQueen) and his right-hand man, Kappy (Don Gordon). O’Hallorhan insists that Duncan move the elegant party in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor to the lobby, but by the time Duncan agrees, the flames have spread and escape options become more and more limited — and dangerous. Among the others struggling to survive are con man Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire, earning his sole Oscar nomination), his potential target, Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones, in her last performance), U.S. senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn), slick public relations man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner), his secretary and mistress, Lorrie (Susan Flannery), Duncan’s daughter, Patty Duncan Simmons (Susan Blakely), the deaf Mrs. Allbright (Carol McEvoy) and her two children, Angela (Carlena Gower) and Phillip (The Brady Bunch’s Mike Lookinland), and Roberts’s fiancée, Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway). Meanwhile, throughout it all, bartender Carlos (Gregory Sierra) remains cool and calm.

The all-star cast of The Towering Inferno in happier times

The all-star cast of The Towering Inferno in happier times

In spectacular scene after spectacular scene, director John Guillermin (Waltz of the Toreadors, King Kong), screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Village of the Damned), and action director, producer, and disaster-movie king Irwin Allen (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) ups the ante as Roberts and O’Hallorhan play the heroes against corporate greed. “Jim, I think you suffer from an edifice complex,” Roberts tells Duncan. A huge hit when it was released in 1974, The Towering Inferno received eight Oscar nominations, winning for best song (“We May Never Love Like This Again,” sung by Maureen McGovern), Best Production Design, and Best Cinematography, by Fred J. Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc, who capture daring aerial shots and dazzling stunts. If the film resembles The Poseidon Adventure, that’s no, er, accident; the 1972 disaster film was also produced by Allen, with a score by John Williams and an Oscar-nominated theme song sung by McGovern (“The Morning After”). The Towering Inferno has taken on new meaning since 9/11, but it’s not as upsetting as you might think, although it is particularly difficult watching a few people jump or fall out of the building. It’s also impossible not to smirk when you see O.J. in a uniform, playing a heroic character. Newman and McQueen — the latter, as was his wont, insisted on equal billing and the same number of lines of dialogue as Newman — make a terrific duo, their stunning blue eyes fighting for equal screen time as well. And somehow the film avoids getting overly soapy and maudlin like so many of its brethren were. A true disasterpiece, The Towering Inferno is screening August 19 and 23 in the fab Quad series “Disasterpieces,” which runs August 18-24 and includes such other genre hits and duds as Airport and Airport ’75, Earthquake (but not in Sensurround), Black Sunday, The Poseidon Adventure, A Night to Remember, Two-Minute Warning, Airplane!, and the flop that ended the glut, 1980’s When Time Ran Out.

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