The Towering Inferno is a 1974 American action drama disaster film produced by Irwin Allen featuring an all-star cast led by Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. The picture was directed by John Guillermin. A co-production between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., it was the first film to be a joint venture by two major Hollywood studios. It was adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a pair of novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.
The film was a critical success, earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was the highest-grossing film released in 1974. The film was nominated for eight Oscars in all, winning three. In addition to McQueen and Newman, the cast includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Gregory Sierra, Dabney Coleman and, in her final film, Jennifer Jones.
Architect Doug Roberts returns to San Francisco for the dedication of the Glass Tower, which he designed for contractor James Duncan. At 138 stories it is the world's tallest building. During pre-dedication testing, an electrical short starts an undetected fire on the 81st floor. Roberts suspects that Roger Simmons, the electrical subcontractor and also Duncan's son-in-law, cut corners. Roberts confronts Simmons, who brushes him off.
During the dedication ceremony Public Relations chief Dan Bigelow turns on all the tower's lights, but Roberts orders them shut off to reduce the load on the electrical system. Smoke is seen on the 81st floor and the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is summoned. Roberts and engineer Will Giddings go to the 81st floor where Giddings is fatally burned pushing a guard away from the fire. Roberts reports the fire to Duncan, who refuses to order an evacuation.
SFFD Chief Michael O'Halloran arrives and forces Duncan to evacuate the guests from the Promenade Room on the 135th floor. Simmons admits to Duncan that he cut corners, but suggests that other subcontractors must have also cut corners to bring the project under budget. Lisolette Mueller, a guest being wooed by con man Harlee Claiborne, rushes to the 87th floor to check on a deaf mother. Security Chief Jernigan rescues the mother, but fire forces her children – along with Roberts and Lisolette – up to the Promenade Room. Bigelow and his mistress Lorrie are killed when fire traps them in the Duncan Enterprises offices on the 65th floor.
Fire overtakes the express elevators and a group is killed when their elevator stops on level engulfed by fire. Though the scenic elevator is still working, the stairways from the Promenade Room are blocked – one by fire, the other by mishandled cement. Just as the firemen begin to bring the fire under control, the electrical system fails, deactivating the passenger elevators; O’Halloran must rappel down the elevator shaft to safety.
An attempt at a helicopter rescue fails when panicky partygoers rush the helipad, the wind causing the helicopter to crash and set the roof ablaze. Naval rescue teams attach a breeches buoy to an adjacent skyscraper and rescue a number of guests, including Patty Simmons, Duncan's daughter. Roberts rigs a gravity brake on the scenic elevator, allowing one trip down for twelve people, including Lisolette and the children. An explosion near the 110th floor throws Lisolette from the elevator and leaves the elevator hanging by a single cable, but O’Halloran rescues the elevator with a Navy helicopter.
As fire reaches the Promenade Room, a group of men led by Simmons attempt to commandeer the breeches buoy, which is subsequently destroyed in an explosion that also leads to Simmons and other guests falling to their deaths. In a last-ditch strategy, O'Halloran and Roberts blow up water tanks atop the Tower with plastic explosives. Most of the partygoers survive as water rushes through the ruined building, extinguishing the flames.
Jernigan gives Claiborne, who is heartbroken at Lisolette's death, her cat. Duncan, consoling his grieving daughter, promises that such a tragic debacle will never happen again. Roberts accepts O’Halloran’s offer of guidance on how to build a fire-safe skyscraper. O’Halloran drives away, exhausted.
Warner Brothers outbid Fox to obtain the rights to Stern's The Tower for $400,000. Fox, in turn, spent $300,000 to obtain the rights to Scortia's The Glass Inferno. Irwin Allen realized that two films about a tall building on fire would cannibalize each other (as actually happened a couple decades later in the case of the two films about active volcanoes, released nearly simultaneously, Volcano (released by Fox) and Dante's Peak (released by Universal)), convinced executives at both studios to join forces to make a single film on the subject. The studios issued a joint press release announcing the single film collaboration in October, 1973.
The total cost for the film was US$14,300,000. The two studios agreed to split the box office revenues, Fox getting all U.S. receipts while Warner Brothers getting all foreign revenues.
Several actors who appeared in small roles, including John Crawford, Erik Nelson, Elizabeth Rogers, Ernie Orsatti, and Sheila Matthews, had previously appeared in The Poseidon Adventure, which Irwin Allen also produced. (Allen and Matthews were husband and wife.) Paul Newman's son Scott played the acrophobic fireman afraid to rappel down the elevator shaft.
McQueen, Newman, and William Holden all wanted top billing. Holden was refused, his long-term standing as a box office draw having been eclipsed by both McQueen and Newman. To provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have "first" billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom. McQueen is mentioned first in the film's trailers. In the cast list rolling from top to bottom at the film's end, however, McQueen and Newman's names were arranged diagonally as at the beginning; as a consequence, Newman's name is fully visible first there.
McQueen and Newman were promised the same pay and number of lines, which meant that one had to shoot additional scenes to equalize the dialog.
Although famed for his dancing and musical comedy movies, Fred Astaire received his only Academy Award nomination for this film. He also won both a BAFTA Award and Golden Globe award for his performance.
The score was composed and conducted by John Williams, orchestrated by Herbert W. Spencer and Al Woodbury, and recorded at the 20th Century Fox scoring stage on October 31 and November 4, 7 and 11, 1974. The original recording engineer was Ted Keep.
Source music in portions of the film includes instrumental versions of "Again" by Lionel Newman and Dorcas Cochran, "You Make Me Feel So Young" by Josef Myrow and Mack Gordon, and "The More I See You" by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon.
A snippet of a cue from Williams’ score to Cinderella Liberty titled 'Maggie Shoots Pool' is heard in a scene when William Holden's character converses on the phone with Paul Newman's character. It is not the recording on the soundtrack album but a newer arrangement recorded for The Towering Inferno. An extended version is heard, ostensibly as source music in a deleted theatrical scene sometimes shown as part of a longer scene from the TV broadcast version.
One of the most sought-after unreleased music cues from the film is the one where Williams provides low-key lounge music during a party prior to the announcement of a fire. O’Halloran orders Duncan to evacuate the party; the music becomes louder as Lisolette and Harlee are seen dancing and Duncan lectures son-in-law Roger. Titled "The Promenade Room" on the conductor's cue sheet, the track features a ragged ending as Duncan asks the house band to stop playing. Because of this, Film Score Monthly could not add this cue to the expanded soundtrack album.
The Academy Award-winning song "We May Never Love Like This Again" was composed by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn and performed by Maureen McGovern, who appears in a cameo as a lounge singer and on the score's soundtrack album, which features the film recording plus the commercially released single version. Additionally, the theme tune is interpolated into the film's underscore by Williams. The song's writers collaborated on "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure, an Academy Award-winning song which was also recorded by McGovern, although hers was not the vocal used in that film.
The first release of portions of the score from The Towering Inferno was on Warner Bros. Records early in 1975 (Catalog No. BS-2840)
A near-complete release came on the Film Score Monthly label (FSM) on April 1, 2001 and was produced by Lukas Kendall and Nick Redman. FSM's was an almost completely expanded version remixed from album masters at Warner Bros. archives and the multi-track 35mm magnetic film stems at 20th Century Fox. Placed into chronological order and restoring action cues, it became one of the company's biggest sellers; only 4000 copies were pressed and it is now out of print.
Reports that this soundtrack and that of the film Earthquake (also composed by Williams) borrowed cues from each other are inaccurate. The version of "Main Title" on the FSM disc is the film version. It differs from the original soundtrack album version. There is a different balance of instruments in two spots, and in particular the snare drum is more prominent than the album version which also features additional cymbal work. Although the album was not a re-recording, the original LP tracks were recorded during the same sessions and several cues were combined. The film version sound was reportedly better than the quarter-inch WB two-track album master. Although some minor incidental cues were lost, some sonically 'damaged' cues – so called due to a deterioration of the surviving audio elements – are placed at the end of the disc's program time following the track "An Architect's Dream" which is used over the end credits sequence.
The Towering Inferno met with positive reviews from critics, garnering a 71% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film as "the best of the mid-1970s wave of disaster films".
|Academy Award||Best Supporting Actor||Fred Astaire||Nominated|||
|Best Art Direction||William J. Creber||Nominated|||
|Best Original Song ("We May Never Love Like This Again")||Al Kasha||Won|||
|Best Original Score||John Williams||Nominated|||
|Best Film Editing||Carl Kress||Won|||
|Harold F. Kress||Won|||
|Best Sound||Theodore Soderberg||Nominated|||
|Best Cinematography||Fred J. Koenekamp & Joseph Biroc||Won|||
|Best Picture||Irwin Allen||Nominated|||
|ACE Eddie||Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic||Carl Kress||Nominated|||
|Harold F. Kress||Nominated|||
|BAFTA Award||Best Music||John Williams||Won|||
|Best Production Design||William J. Creber||Nominated|||
|Best Cinematography||Fred J. Koenekamp||Nominated|||
|Best Supporting Actor||Fred Astaire||Won|||
|Golden Globe Award||Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture||Won|||
|Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture||Jennifer Jones||Nominated|||
|New Star of the Year – Actress||Susan Flannery||Won|||
|Best Screenplay||Stirling Silliphant||Nominated|||
|Best Original Song ("We May Never Love Like This Again")||Al Kasha||Nominated|||
The Towering Inferno was released in theatres on December 14, 1974.
The film was one of the biggest grossing films of 1975 with U.S. and Canadian rentals of $48,838,000.
In January 1976, it was claimed that the film had attained the highest foreign film rental for any film in its initial release with $43 million. Combined with the rental for the U.S. and Canada, the worldwide rental is $91,838,0000.
Based on the reported gross for U.S. and Canada of $116,000,000  and the foreign film rentals, the worldwide gross is in the region of $200 million.
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