Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Towering Inferno by Stirling Silliphant

I know, I know... posting about a Western, and now a disaster movie. 

Well, if you steered clear of The Towering Inferno all your life because it looks like a cheesy piece of mainstream Hollywood junk, then you're in good company.

Or, at least you're in my company, because I've been avoiding this movie since 1974 for exactly that reason. What changed my mind?

Well, the fact that it was written by Stirling Silliphant. 
Silliphant (odd name, I know) was a dismayingly prolific screenwriter, which makes it easy to assume he's just no good. In fact he's a distinctive and intriguing talent. 

He worked extensively in television on the ground breaking shows Naked City and Route 66, then moved to Hollywood where he won an Oscar for his script for In the Heat of the Night. But let's come back to Stirling Silliphant in a moment. 
The Towering Inferno came about when two major movie studios discovered that they had each bought similar novels about a massive fire ravaging a glass skyscraper...

The novels were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson. 20th Century Fox bought The Glass Inferno and Warner Bros. bought The Tower.

They had each spent a lot of money to acquire these books and were going to spend vastly more on making two virtually identical movies. This potentially bankrupting collision was avoided by one of the rare outbreaks of common sense in Hollywood history.

Fox and Warner decided to pool their resources and collaborate on making a single blockbuster film. So The Tower and The Glass Inferno were combined to form The Towering Inferno.

The picture was directed by John Guillermin, a Brit with an interesting track record (The Blue Max, Shaft in Africa) and produced by Irwin Allen, famed in his day for spectacles, schlock and science fiction (coincidentally, Scortia and Robinson who wrote The Glass Inferno also had backgrounds in science fiction).

Irwin Allen, whose career would be all downhill from The Towering Inferno, also takes a credit on the film for directing the action sequences.

The directing of the movie as a whole ranges from effective to incompetent. And in those action sequences which Allen was so eager to lay claim to, it's sometimes difficult to even know what is happening, at least in the DVD print that I watched.

The screenplay, however, is a different matter. It is ferociously proficient. Recalling his work on the movie in an interview Stirling Silliphant said, "You have to deal with the logistics of the physical action... what you are not doing is writing. What you are doing is juggling."

That is, juggling the large cast of characters. Interestingly, when he was planning the screenplay Silliphant even treated the fire as a character — "my favourite character in the script" — and gave it a name.

And the end result, despite the cheesy trappings of the movie, is gripping and unpredictable — you won't be able to guess who lives and who dies.

But Silliphant's writing was not just a masterful exercise in logistics, he also crafted some superb dialogue. The fire chief O'Halloran, played by Steve McQueen, talks about what death traps these skyscrapers are and how he's sick of "eating smoke and pulling out bodies."

Silliphant reminisced amusingly about dealing with the egos of his two leading men, McQueen and Paul Newman. (Look at the publicity material for the film, which has been cunningly designed so that they both appear to be getting top billing.) But he concludes,
"Despite this, The Towering Inferno did emerge as a powerful and engrossing film."
And he's right. But regarding the competition between McQueen and Newman, there is really no contest. Steve McQueen is easily the best thing in the movie, impressive — low key and believable and tremendously watchable. 

Admittedly his role as the fire chief was a hell of a lot more interesting that Newman's part as the architect... but it is Steve McQueen's naturalistic, understated, contained acting style which really triumphs, making Paul Newman look outmoded and cumbersome by comparison.

I watched this film expecting it to launch me on a mini-festival of movies written by Stirling Silliphant. In fact, it looks more likely to set me off on a retrospective of pictures starring Steve McQueen, a great actor and a major movie star in his day, now mostly forgotten...

At the conclusion of The Towering Inferno there is great satisfaction in seeing the fire finally snuffed out. 

But, for me, the big emotional moment was discovering that Jennifer Jones's cat had been safely rescued — even though the rescuer was an actor called O.J. Simpson...

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)


  1. Good stuff! Another post in a fine series of reviews. You are right about Stirling Silliphant.

    I saw The Towering Inferno when it hit theatres. This then newly minted teen loved it. After The Poseidon Adventure, "anticipation" was too weak a word.

    I've not seen TTI in years, but I'm sure it stands up, still. Just like the tower.

    Oh: Johnny Williams' terrific theme tune comes from the time before he fell into a rut. I still think it's his best "epic" theme.

    Thanks. It's time to pull out the DVD....

    1. I would have touched on John Williams's music but the post was running a bit long. Thank you so much for your comment — I approached this movie with a bit of trepidation because it was so mainstream. I'm really glad it struck a chord with you. I am going to get hold of The Poseidon Adventure next. In the interview I read Silliphant seems to hold that in higher regard than The Towering Inferno because the characters from the Paul Gallico novel were well realised, which he found very useful. Thanks for reading!