The Towering Inferno (dir. John Guillerman, 1974) is one of the Irwin Allen-produced disaster epics helped establish the modern blockbuster in terms of scale, stakes, and narrative setup. Without it, we wouldn’t have later films like Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) or even Skyscraper (dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018), as previously covered in the Tower-ing Fiction series. And at its heart is the Glass Tower, a modern skyscraper, billed as “the tallest building in the world,” which of course will become the titular towering inferno, which will erupt over “a night of blazing suspense,” as promotional materials don’t attempt to hide.
The plot of the film is fairly thin—architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) has returned to San Francisco for the dedication of the building he designed the builder, James Duncan (William Holden); an electrical fire breaks out on the 81st floor, likely because Duncan’s son-in-law cut corners; during the dedication ceremony itself, a full fire erupts, and fire chief Michael O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) is called in to try to rescue those trapped inside, many from the 135th floor Promenade Room, roof, offices, elevators, etc. The star-studded cast is populated by actors playing types (as named on the poster): Faye Dunaway as the Girlfriend, Fred Astaire as the Con-Man, Susan Blakely as the Wife, Richard Chamberlain as the Son-in-Law, Jennifer Jones as the Widow, OJ Simpson as the Security Man, Robert Vaughn as the Senator, and Robert Wagner as the Publicity Man. There is much fire, and yelling, and a few tests of wills, but the film focuses on moment-by-moment solutions to immediate danger—how will a cluster of our characters make it through the peril in front of them, and can they trust one another to do so? In the end, much of the fire is doused by blowing up roof-top water tanks, with O’Hallorhan’s ingenuity saving nearly all of those involved.
The Glass Tower
The film opens with a nearly five-minute helicopter trip up the coast, past the Golden Gate Bridge, and into San Francisco, so that architect Doug Roberts (Newman) can see his completed design:
This opening concludes with a skyline shot dominated by The Glass Tower (center) with its base firmly on Market Street and a second, flat-roofed rectangular tower to its northwest, the Peerless Building, which will come into the plot much later in the film. Both are composited (pre-CGI) into the San Francisco skyline
The Glass Tower is presented as a 138 story, 1,652’ tower (which would make it the world’s tallest at the time), clad in amber-tinted walls of glass, with an angular façade, located at 655 Market Street (the real site of the historic Plaza Hotel), at the base of the Financial District. For reference, just between them, within a block of the fictional Peerless Building, is the real-world 38 story, 528’ McKesson Plaza (seen to the right and about half the height of Peerless tower, above).
The Duncan Corporation’s motto is “We Build for Life” and the Glass Tower gives the impression of gilded stability, presented as monumental and a beacon in the night as the lights are fully lit:
The look of the tower, particularly its base, is modelled on the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (which had just opened in 1973), just a few blocks up on Market, and which served as a shooting location for the lobby of the Glass Tower, and whose distinctive pill-shaped elevators appear directly in the film, including in a climactic rescue scene near the end.
The design of the building, both exterior (above) and interior, emphasizes angularity:
This is of course set up for the titular inferno, so that the viewer can track the various events.
In the multi-stage climax, a breeches buoy line is rigged to the lower roof of the nearby Peerless Building, allowing people to shift across:
While an elevator detaches from its track, forcing O’Hallorhan (McQueen) to cut it loose and guide a helicopter to lower it to street level:
Finally, water tanks near the roof are detonated, drenching the remaining stars:
And visually establishing the look that would later show up in films like Die Hard:
Before quenching the external flames as well:
From Prose to Screen
The Towering Inferno was adapted from two fairly similar thrillers, The Tower (1973) by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno (1974) by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. The Tower focuses on the grand opening of the World Tower Building in Lower Manhattan, built near the World Trade Center Towers (which had been completed in 1970 and 1971), and is billed as even taller, at 125 stories and 1,527’; the plot hinges on shortcuts in the electrical systems, a disgruntled sheet-metal worker with a bomb, which coupled sets off a fire that traps the important guests in the 125th floor Tower Room, some of whom are saved by a breeches buoy line secured to the nearby (and lower) North Tower of the World Trade Center. The Glass Inferno concerns itself with the “Glass House,” or more properly the National Curtainwall Building, which is some 66 stories tall an located in an unnamed American city; again, corners were cut in the construction of the tower, there are disgruntled employees, and a fire breaks out, and in this iteration, those remaining are saved from the penthouse Promenade Room by a combination of helicopter rescue and exploding water tanks to put out most of the fire.
Warner Brothers bought the rights to The Tower and 20th Century Fox snagged The Glass Inferno, putting two similar films in to production. Allen convinced the two studios to jointly produce his film, splitting revenues, with domestic proceeds going to Fox and international to Warner Brothers. These parallel novels were then merged by Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote scripts for In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison, 1967) and The Poseidon Adventure) in to one synthetic story, and copies of both novels were rolled out with film-specific branding.
The two novels make their respective towers central characters.
The Tower opens with a set of diegetic descriptions of the World Tower:
It is the world’s tallest structure, and the most modern, an enduring tribute to man’s ingenuity, skill, and vision. It is a triumph of imagination. —GROVER FRAZEE at the World Tower dedication ceremonies.
A monument to Mammon, product of man’s insatiable ego, an affront to the gods. That so much treasure should have been poured into the construction of this — this monstrosity while poverty, yes, and even hunger still stalk the land, is an abomination! There will be inevitable Divine retribution! —THE REVEREND JOE WILLIE THOMAS in a press interview.
Which is then followed by an extended prologue, moving from the construction to the tower as a living thing:
For one hundred and twenty-five floors, from street level to Tower Room, the building rose tall and clean and shining. […] By comparison with the twin masses of the nearby Trade Center, the building appeared slim, almost delicate, a thing of fragile-seeming grace and beauty. But eight subbasements beneath the street level its roots were anchored deep in the bedrock of the island; and its core and external skeleton, cunningly contrived, had the strength of laminated spring steel. […] Through its telephone, radio, and television systems operating at ground level, broadcasting through the atmosphere or via satellite, its sphere of communication was, quite simply, the earth. It could even communicate with itself, floor to floor, subbasement to gleaming tower.
[…] As the structure grew, its arteries, veins, nerves, and muscles were woven into the whole: miles of wiring, piping, utility ducting; cables and conduits; heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning ducts, intakes, and outlets—and always, always the monitoring systems and devices to oversee and control the building’s internal environment, its health, its life. Sensors to relay information on temperature, humidity, air flow and content; computers to assimilate the data, evaluate them, issue essential instructions for continuation or change. […] The building breathed, manipulated its internal systems, slept only as the human body sleeps: heart, lungs, cleansing organs functioning on automatic control, encephalic waves pulsing ceaselessly.
[…] Men had envisioned it, conceived it, and constructed it, sometimes almost lovingly, sometimes with near hatred, because, like all great projects, the building had early on developed a character of its own, and no man intimately associated with it could escape involvement. There is, it seems, a feedback. What man creates with his hands or his mind becomes a part of himself. And there, on this morning, the building stood, its uppermost tip catching the first rays of sunrise while the rest of the city still slept in shadow; and the thousands of men who had had a part in the building’s design and construction were going to remember this day forever.
Later, in chapter 12, as the inferno rages, a character reflects that “the great shining World Tower she had visited so often during the years of its construction […] was crippled now, a helpless giant” and the people on the street gazing upon the tower, “like ghouls, spectators at a public execution lusting for more blood, more terror.” In the next chapter, an omniscient narrator characterizes the building a cursed:
For some from the start it was one of those jobs you writhed in dreams about and awakened sweating. The sheer magnitude of the World Tower was frightening, but it was more, far more than that. The building taking shape seemed to develop a personality of its own, and that personality was malign. On a cold fall day a freak wind whipped through the huge empty space where the plaza would be, picked up a loose piece of corrugation, and scaled it as a boy might scale a flattened tin can. A workman named Bowers saw it coming, tried too late to duck, and was almost but not quite decapitated. The front tire of a partially off-loaded truck standing perfectly still suddenly blew out with sufficient force to shift the untied load of pipe, burying three men in a tangle of assorted fractures. On another cold fall day a fire started in a subbasement, spread through piled lumber, and trapped two men in a tunnel. They were rescued alive—just. Paul Simmons was standing outside the building, talking with one of his foremen, when Pete Janowski walked off the steel at floor 65. The Doppler effect accentuated the man’s screams until they ended abruptly with a sickening thunk that Paul, not ten feet away, would never forget.
And finally, near the end of the novel, in chapter 30, when speculating on motivations of Connor, the bomber, we learn that:
“[…] the World Tower building was the last real job he had. He was fired. There’s a connection, but maybe you have to be loony to see it. I don’t know. All I know are the facts.” In a vague kind of way it made sense. All three men felt it. The Establishment had killed Connors’s wife, hadn’t it? The World Tower building was the brand-new shining symbol of the Establishment, wasn’t it? Well?
So, the World Tower, man’s creation (and mirror of himself) is both malign and the Man, the inferno of the novel a kind of public execution, spurred on by one man’s rage at its symbolic stakes.
The Glass Inferno (1974) opens with teasing advertising copy:
The snow that began falling on Thanksgiving Eve added an extra magic to the spectacular new sixty-six-story high rise known as the Glass House. It dominated the city skyline: the latest triumph of modern architecture and engineering. But unnoticed, deep within it, a tiny spark grew until it became an inferno that changed the lives of the hundreds who worked or lived in the building—as well as the architect who designed it, the contractors who built it, the newsman who first warned of its dangers, and the firemen compelled to risk their lives because of another’s man’s greed and misjudgment. A gripping story of fire in a modem high rise, The Glass Inferno is an unforgettable novel of men and women caught in crisis, their heroism and cowardice, their unforgivable weaknesses and surprising strengths. As much fact as fiction, this is the revealing account of a holocaust that no fire department anywhere is equipped to fight. A novel, as uncomfortably close to the city cliff dweller as tomorrow’s headlines, gives us a frightening insight into the new skyscrapers that march across the urban and suburban skyline—the towering apartment houses and business complexes that experts have dubbed “fire traps in the sky.”
Lacking the more overt symbolism of The Tower, the Glass House is described in the first chapter as a “tower etched against the dark clouds”:
Sixty-six stories of gold-tinted glass panels and gold-anodized aluminum. The location on the north side of the financial district had been selected so there would be no buildings for several blocks around that could challenge it. There had been no compromise on the size of the site itself—the plazas on each side of the building were spacious and inviting, you didn’t feel crowded as you strolled across them to the building’s entrance. Sixty-six stories—thirty commercial and office floors and thirty-six of apartment floors—straight up with no setbacks. On the southern exposure, a sheer wall marked the utility core and served as a golden backdrop for the scenic elevator to the Promenade Room at the top. […] the most popular postcards in the local drugstores were those of the Glass House at night. It had become a symbol of the city.
The Glass House is a less audacious structure, described in chapter 31 as just “one of the tallest” high rises in the city, with similar construction problems as possible dangers, such as the “chimney effect” that would exacerbate a mid-building raging fire.
Building the Glass Tower
The Towering Inferno, along with its Allen-produced precursor The Poseidon Adventure (dir. Ronald Neame, 1972) and later films like Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977) helped establish the modern conception of the blockbuster film, specifically in their publicity, merchandising, and the narrative of production used to pitch the films themselves. So, The Towering Inferno was not only the top-grossing film of 1974 (and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), but was also promoted by highlighting the story of its production, specifically how its special effects were achieved, including extensive documentation of the model-making for the film’s two main towers.
Below are some of the variety of production materials that came out in relation to the film, sourced from a variety of fan sites, including The Towering Inferno Archive and The Towering Inferno Memorabilia Archive.
And, as with other major blockbusters, The Towering Inferno received some light ribbing from parody magazines. Prominent among these was the six-page “The Towering Infernal,” in Cracked #126 (August 1975), with original art by John Severin:
And the eight-page “The Towering Sterno” in Mad #177 (September 1975), written by Dick De Bartolo, with art by Mort Drucker: