IT WAS 25 YEARS AGO TODAY The hottest ticket in town

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On 18 December 1974, The Towering Inferno was released in the US. The latest tale of catastrophe, multiple deaths and individual heroism to be produced in the wake of The Poisedon Adventure (1972), it was also, at a cost of $14m, the most expensive. It even took two studios to produce it: Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox had each bought a fire-in-a- skyscraper book - The Tower and The Glass Inferno - but avoided competitive suicide by pooling their budgets and amalgamating the stories. The film also had two directors - Irwin Allen and John Guillerman - and two leading men in an all-star cast: Paul Newman as the architect of the world's tallest building and Steve McQueen as San Francisco's heroic fire chief. (At McQueen's insistence, they had equal billing and exactly the same number of lines.)

Beyond the unique production circumstances, it was disaster as usual. On the 131st floor, VIPs gather to celebrate the tower's opening; on the 81st floor, faulty wiring sparks a fire. Soon, there's no way down and no room for a credible plot or sensible dialogue. Robert Wagner asks his just-bedded secretary "Did you leave a cigarette burning?"; they both die almost immediately. Faye Dunaway survives wearing little more than a chiffon handkerchief. O J Simpson rescues a cat. At the end, McQueen wipes his brow, satisfied that the body count is "less than 200".

The critics were impressed by its scale but agreed on little else. The effects were "old-fashioned Hollywood make-believe at its painstaking best" (New York Times) but the plot was predictable: "Obvious cheaters and other meanies get their come-uppance while individuals of quiet integrity win a chance to prove their virtue" (Time). Pauline Kael called its realism "offensive". "Each scene of a person horribly in flames is presented as a feat for our delectation. The picture practically stops for us to say `Yummy, that's a good one!'" (New Yorker) Newsweek also hated it, yet dwelt on its moral: "The glass tower becomes a combustible symbol of American affluence, built precariously on rotten foundations. And its torrential climax, when a roomful of enormous top-floor water tanks is blown up, can be read as an apocalyptic ritual cleansing of all that is decayed in our society."

Whether or not it made Americans think twice about materialism or high- rise living, The Towering Inferno trounced all competition at the box office, quadrupling the studios' investment and making an estimated $12m for each of its two stars.