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The Towering Inferno

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

 

Disaster films, a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster as its subject and primary plot device, reached the pinnacle during the first half of the 1970s, when high-profile films such as ‘Airport’ (1970), ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972), ‘Earthquake’ (1974) and ‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974) followed each other in quick succession,  to huge success.  In fact, the last mentioned film set the cinema screens ablaze with its narrative, wherein a skyscraper doesn’t burn down, but just burns up.

Designed as an all-star vehicle, ‘The Towering Inferno’, inarguably the greatest of the disaster films, was a joint venture of 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, produced by Irwin Allen, who eventually was referred to as ‘The Master of Disaster’ having produced disaster flicks such as ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972), ‘The Swarm’ (1978), ‘Beyond the Poseidon Adventure’ (1979) and ‘When Time Ran Out…’ (1980).

This film was based on two novels, ‘The Tower’ by Richard Martin Stern, and ‘The Glass Inferno’ by Thomas N Scortia and Frank M Robinson. After the success of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, disaster films gathered prominence and Warner Brothers bought the rights to film ‘The Tower’ for $410,000. Eight weeks later Irwin Allen of 20th Century Fox discovered ‘The Glass Inferno’ and bought its rights for $400,000. To avoid similar films competing at the box office, the two major Hollywood studios took an unprecedented step and joined forces, pooling their resources, each paying half the production costs. In return, 20th Century Fox got the US box office receipts, while Warner Brothers the receipts from the rest of the world.

In the original script the role of the fire chief – initially named Mario Infantino – was considerably smaller. According to director John Guillermin, the role was offered to Ernest Borgnine with Steve McQueen playing the architect of the ill-fated building. McQueen later said: “If somebody of my caliber can play the architect, I’ll play the fire chief,” and Paul Newman was brought onto the project as the architect. Katharine Ross and Natalie Wood were both offered the role of Susan Franklin that was eventually played by Faye Dunaway. William Holden demanded first billing, but his career had declined so much over the years that he was billed after Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

Besides, William Holden, the other senior actors in the film included Fred Astair and Jennifer Jones, who even had a short dance scene together. This turned out to be Jones’ final film. Interestingly, in the climax, Fred Astaire was not acting when the explosions happened. He was very scared indeed.

The building used in the film was a series of miniatures and matte paintings. Only sections of the building were actually constructed for the actors and stunt people to perform their scenes. Interior shots of the building were of San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency, while the exterior shots used the Bank of America building with an additional 50 stories of matte paintings added.

Eight of the studio’s largest sound stages were filled with 57 sets for this film and its crew was increased to more than twice the normal number to meet the demands of the rigorous shooting schedule. Of the 57 sets built, only eight remained standing when filming ended. Altogether four separate camera crews were utilised in some scenes of the film, a record at the time. The crews were designated with capturing different aspects of the scenes: character filming, action shots, special effects, and aerial shots. More than 200 individual acts of cinematic danger were performed by the greatest collection of Hollywood stunt experts in film annals under the supervision of stunt co-coordinator Paul Stader.

Big-budget special effects were used to create the breathtaking action sequences as occupants of the skyscraper make miraculous escapes from fire-ravaged stairwells and melting elevators. In fact, the special effects of the film were brilliant with technological work at its painstaking best. Miles away from the age of computer graphics, the film owed its success to the fact that the audiences had no idea as to which scenes of crematory horror were filmed in life-size studio mockups, which were shot on real locations, and which had use of miniatures in them.

The adrenaline pumping score for the film was composed and conducted by John Williams, who later became a regular composer for Steven Spielberg films. 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. The Academy Award-winning song ‘We may never love like this again’ was composed by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn and performed by Maureen McGovern, who appears in a cameo as a lounge singer.

‘The Towering Inferno’ was the highest-grossing film released in 1974 and met with positive reviews from critics. The estimated budget of the film was $14,000,000, while it collected $139,700,000 at the box office, grossing almost ten times its budget. To crown its success, the film earned eight nominations for the Academy Award including in the category of Best Picture, eventually winning three Oscars.

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