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.