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I am the fire that burns out of sight,
Starting my rampage as merely a wisp.
Celebrate victory into the night;
I will burn you and your spire to a crisp.
Why do they build these skyscrapers so high,
Making it simpler with every floor
For me to cut off and trap in the sky
Everyone over my fiery roar?
Look at the people who panic and flee,
Visitors boasting illustrious names.
Look at the firemen battling me,
Feeble to fight in the face of my flames.
I am inferno, the new height of heat,
No other bastion of bragging is hotter.
Top of the world, Ma! None can defeat
Me or my mayhem, except—oh no—water!

(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a persona poem, one written in the voice of someone/something else. I’ve written a few like that recently, but this film offered another good opportunity.)

Released at the height of the 1970s fascination with disaster films, The Towering Inferno is one of the best films produced by “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen. Featuring one of those great ensembles of former power players, the film plays as a modern land-based version of the Titanic story. Just as the Titanic set out without enough lifeboats for everyone aboard, the Glass Tower’s builder (William Holden) sees no problem with holding a top-floor party in a 138-story building with no working fire suppression system and later refuses to understand the severity of the situation. Likewise, the Titanic did have all the boats it was required to, just as the corner-cutting engineer (a loathsome Richard Chamberlain) insists that all the systems he installed were “up to code,” which is just not good enough, as the high-reaching disaster starkly proves.

In addition to the danger of irresponsible cost-saving measures, which are most commonly to blame for human-liable disasters, the film is an early realistic tribute to the heroism of firefighters, embodied in Steve McQueen’s Chief Mike O’Halloran. While he at first blames the tower’s architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), he wastes no time in taking charge and using everything at his disposal to stop the conflagration and rescue the stranded partygoers, from helicopters to a breeches buoy to a life-risking explosive mission. Not only does it foreshadow more recent firefighter stories, but certain scenes may even remind you of Die Hard or, more soberingly, the 9/11 attacks.

There’s everything you expect from a big disaster movie: building tension, children in danger, ill-fated lovers, lamentable panic, harrowing visual effects (the stars did their own stunts for the wet finale, which was filmed in one take), daring rescues, and an enormous cast of big-ish names, some of which aren’t necessarily safe from flaming death. In addition to the ones above, there are Faye Dunaway, an aging Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, model Susan Blakely, everyone’s favorite football player O. J. Simpson, Dabney Coleman, and the final film role of Jennifer Jones. Reportedly, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen clashed egos in who would receive top billing, resulting in a clever compromise in the credits, with McQueen’s name on the left but lower than Newman’s. Plus, those who remember 1970s TV might recognize the sheriff from The Waltons (as an electrical worker), Gregory Sierra from Barney Miller (as the bartender), and The Brady Bunch’s Mike Lookinland/Bobby Brady (as a boy in peril).

Rising from its B-movie potential, The Towering Inferno is surprisingly well-done, though not without some faults (a few overlong suspense scenes and victim incompetence), and it won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Editing, and Song, as well as a Best Picture nomination. While I prefer The Poseidon Adventure (which also won Best Song two years prior for “The Morning After,” which was also sung commercially by Maureen McGovern), this film has enough star power and thrills to still entertain. If Jaws made you afraid to go in the water and The Poseidon Adventure turned you off from cruise ships, The Towering Inferno may give you pause the next time you head to the top of a skyscraper.

Best line: (Doug Roberts, to the tower’s ambitious builder) “Don’t you think you’re suffering from an edifice complex?”

VC’s best line: (Doug Roberts) “If you had to cut costs, why didn’t you cut floors instead of corners?”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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