The best scene in the Irwin Allen-produced disaster blockbuster The Towering Inferno comes fairly early. Sneaking away from a party for a newly opened 135-story skyscraper, Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery barely have time to bask in the afterglow from their extramarital quickie before realizing they’re about to be engulfed in flames. After they trade what they hope won’t be their last goodbyes, Wagner makes a go of rushing through the fire to find help. He fails, and the film captures his death in terrifying slow motion before sending Flannery to a similar fate. Their fast-growing realization that they’re about to die, no matter what they do, really sells the scene. Death has come knocking unexpectedly and insistently.
The film could use more such moments over its nearly three-hour running time. Allen’s follow-up to the highly successful The Poseidon Adventure, Inferno follows that film’s formula, right down to the Maureen McGovern theme song. Other familiar elements: an all-star cast, an ever-mounting series of problems, a conflict between people wanting to act in the service of a group and those acting in their own self-interest, and a moralizing streak that rewards the virtuous and punishes the guilty. Well, mostly. 1970s disaster movies didn’t quite follow the punishing moral code of the next decade’s slasher films, but it’s a pretty safe bet that anyone acting like an asshole will die an asshole’s death.
Richard Chamberlain, one of the men whose corner-cutting led to the disaster, plays the heel in a cast otherwise filled with sympathetic good guys like Paul Newman as the building’s architect, and Steve McQueen as the San Francisco fire chief who could have told them this was going to happen, dammit, but would they have listened? Also on hand: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and a charismatic young football player named O.J. Simpson. Unfortunately, the star power and some impressive action sequences get boiled down in the flavorless stew of the movie around them. Allen pioneered the bigger-is-better approach to blockbuster filmmaking. He was eventually crushed under the weight of that approach’s demands, but even this moment of glory has lost its glow. As the bland, star-laden drama gets swallowed by fiery special-effects setpieces, it feels like one type of big-budget mediocrity giving way to the next.
Key features: Commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes… the usual, in other words.