The Towering Inferno

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This article is about the film. For the band, see Towering Inferno (band).
The Towering Inferno
Towering inferno movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by John Berkey
Directed by John Guillermin
Produced by Irwin Allen
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
Based on The Tower by Richard Martin Stern
and The Glass Inferno by
Thomas N. Scortia
Frank M. Robinson
Starring Steve McQueen
Paul Newman
William Holden
Faye Dunaway
Fred Astaire
Susan Blakely
Richard Chamberlain
Jennifer Jones
O. J. Simpson
Robert Vaughn
Robert Wagner
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp
Edited by Carl Kress
Harold F. Kress
20th Century Fox
Warner Bros.
Irwin Allen Productions
United Films
Distributed by USA:
20th Century Fox
(21st Century Fox)
Warner Bros.
(Time Warner)
Release dates
December 14, 1974
Running time
165 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $14.3 million[1]
Box office $139.7 million[2]

The Towering Inferno is a 1974 American action drama disaster film produced by Irwin Allen featuring an all-star cast led by Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. The picture was directed by John Guillermin.

A co-production between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. (this was the first film to be a joint venture by two major Hollywood studios), it was adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a pair of novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.

The film was a critical success, earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was the highest-grossing film released in 1974. The film was nominated for eight Oscars in all, winning three.

In addition to McQueen and Newman, the cast includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Gregory Sierra, Dabney Coleman and, in her final film, Jennifer Jones.


Architect Doug Roberts returns to San Francisco for the dedication of the Glass Tower, which he designed for owner James Duncan. At 138 stories (1,800 ft/550 m), it is the world's tallest building, a combination of offices on the lower floors and apartments starting on the 80th floor, billed as a self-contained place where people can both work and live.. Shortly after his arrival, an electrical short starts an undetected fire on the 81st floor. While Roberts accuses the building's electrical engineer, Roger Simmons of cutting corners, Simmons insists the building is up to standards.

During the dedication ceremony, public relations chief Dan Bigelow is ordered to turn on the tower's exterior lights to impress the guests and dignitaries. The lighting overloads the electrical system and Roberts orders it shut off. Smoke is seen on the 81st floor and the San Francisco Fire Department is summoned. Roberts and engineer Will Giddings go to the 81st floor but fail to prevent a security guard opening a door, leading to a fire flash which results in Giddings being hospitalized (then later revealed died from this accident).

Roberts reports the fire to a dismissive Duncan, who refuses to order an evacuation. Ill-equipped firefighters arrive to tackle the blaze, which soon spreads out of control. SFFD Chief Michael O'Halloran forces Duncan to evacuate the guests in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor, directing them to express elevators. A guest, Lisolette Mueller, who is being wooed by con man Harlee Claiborne, rushes to the 87th floor to check on a young family. Simmons admits to Duncan that he did indeed cut corners, at a time when Duncan had overbudgeted construction and was ordering subcontractors back under budget.

Duncan, aided by Senator Parker and Mayor Ramsey, directs the elevator evacuation from the Promenade Room until the fire renders the express elevators unsafe. Not heeding Duncan's directions, one last group takes an elevator to the ground, but are killed when it stops on the fire's floor. The fire also traps Bigelow and his secretary/mistress Lorrie in his 65th floor office, killing them. Senator Parker recommends some men use the stairs to escape, but the fire exit a couple of floors below the Promenande Room is blocked due to a hardened wheelbarrow full of cement.

Security Chief Harry Jernigan and Roberts rescue Mueller and the family from 87. Jernigan gets the mother out safely but Roberts, Mueller and the two children are halted by a collapsed stairwell. They make a perilous climb down the stairs but fire forces them up to the Promenade Room. With fire suppression efforts becoming ineffective, the building loses electrical power and O'Halloran's men are forced to rappel down an elevator shaft.

A rooftop rescue results in disaster as guests rush the helicopter, causing it to crash, setting the roof ablaze and rendering further rooftop rescues impossible. Naval rescue teams attach a breeches buoy to the adjacent Peerless Building and rescue a number of guests, including Patty Simmons, who is Duncan's daughter. Roberts rigs a gravity brake on the external scenic elevator allowing twelve people, to include Mueller, the children, and a fireman one trip down, with the remaining eight being ladies chosen by lottery, one of whom is Roberts' girlfriend Susan. An explosion leaves the descending elevator hanging by a single cable at the 110th floor, where Mueller falls to her death. A Navy helicopter (with O'Halloran aboard) saves the rest by latching itself to the elevator.

Simmons tells Duncan that he will use the breeches buoy next, but Duncan punches him, saying the men will draw numbers but he and his son-in-law will be the last to leave. The fire reaches the Promenade Room and Simmons forces his way onto the buoy, leading to a struggle. Parker is pushed to his death by Simmons. However, an explosion severs the lines to the breeches buoy, causing Simmons to also fall to his death.

An SFFD deputy chief summons O'Halloran with a plan to explode the million-gallon water tanks atop the building to extinguish the fire. Knowing it could result in his death, O'Halloran meets with Roberts and they set C-4 on the six water tanks on the 138th floor. They return to the Promenade Room, where the remaining guests tie themselves down. O'Halloran, Roberts, Duncan, Claiborne and most of the party-goers survive as water rushes through the building, extinguishing the flames.

On the ground, Claiborne learns that Mueller did not survive and is heartbroken. Jernigan gives him Mueller's pet cat. Duncan consoles Patty over her husband's death (but does not disclose the cowardly way he died). Looking up at the tower, Duncan promises that such a tragic debacle will never happen again in the future. Roberts says to Susan that he does not know what will become of the building, and perhaps it should be left in its fire-damaged state as "a kind of shrine to all the bullshit in the world". Informing Roberts that the casualty toll numbered less than 200, O'Halloran says they were lucky. Roberts agrees to consult with fire officials in the future when such buildings are designed. O'Halloran drives away, exhausted.


Several actors who appeared in small roles, including John Crawford, Erik Nelson, Elizabeth Rogers, Ernie Orsatti, and Sheila Matthews, had previously appeared in The Poseidon Adventure, which Irwin Allen also produced. Paul Newman's son Scott played the acrophobic fireman afraid to rappel down the elevator shaft.

McQueen and Newman[edit]

McQueen, Newman, and William Holden all wanted top billing. Holden was refused, his long-term standing as a box office draw having been eclipsed by both McQueen and Newman. To provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have "first" billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom,[3] the first of countless times in which billing would be displayed this way in films.[citation needed] McQueen is mentioned first in the film's trailers. In the cast list rolling from top to bottom at the film's end, however, McQueen and Newman's names were arranged diagonally as at the beginning; as a consequence, Newman's name is fully visible first there.

McQueen and Newman were promised the same pay and number of lines, which meant that one had to shoot additional scenes to equalize the dialog.[citation needed]


The score was composed and conducted by John Williams, orchestrated by Herbert W. Spencer and Al Woodbury, and recorded at the 20th Century Fox scoring stage on October 31 and November 4, 7 and 11, 1974. The original recording engineer was Ted Keep.

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.[4]

A snippet of a cue from Williams’ score to Cinderella Liberty titled 'Maggie Shoots Pool' is heard in a scene when William Holden's character converses on the phone with Paul Newman's character. It is not the recording on the soundtrack album but a newer arrangement recorded for The Towering Inferno. An extended version is heard, ostensibly as source music in a deleted theatrical scene sometimes shown as part of a longer scene from the TV broadcast version.

One of the most sought-after unreleased music cues from the film is the one where Williams provides low-key lounge music during a party prior to the announcement of a fire. O’Halloran orders Duncan to evacuate the party; the music becomes louder as Lisolette and Harlee are seen dancing and Duncan lectures son-in-law Roger. Titled "The Promenade Room" on the conductor's cue sheet, the track features a ragged ending as Duncan asks the house band to stop playing. Because of this, Film Score Monthly could not add this cue to the expanded soundtrack album.

The Academy Award-winning song "We May Never Love Like This Again" was composed by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn and performed by Maureen McGovern, who appears in a cameo as a lounge singer and on the score's soundtrack album, which features the film recording plus the commercially released single version. Additionally, the theme tune is interpolated into the film's underscore by Williams. The song's writers collaborated on "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure which was also sung by McGovern, although hers was not the vocal in that film.

The first release of portions of the score from The Towering Inferno was on Warner Bros. Records early in 1975 (Catalog No. BS-2840)

  1. "Main Title" (5:00)
  2. "An Architect's Dream" (3:28)
  3. "Lisolette And Harlee" (2:34)
  4. "Something For Susan" (2:42)
  5. "Trapped Lovers" (4:28)
  6. "We May Never Love Like This Again" – Kasha/Hirschhorn, performed by Maureen McGovern (2:11)
  7. "Susan And Doug" (2:30)
  8. "The Helicopter Explosion" (2:50)
  9. "Planting The Charges – And Finale" (10:17)

A near-complete release came on the Film Score Monthly label (FSM) on April 1, 2001 and was produced by Lukas Kendall and Nick Redman. FSM's was an almost completely expanded version remixed from album masters at Warner Bros. archives and the multi-track 35mm magnetic film stems at 20th Century Fox. Placed into chronological order and restoring action cues, it became one of the company's biggest sellers; only 4000 copies were pressed and it is now out of print.

Reports that this soundtrack and that of the film Earthquake (also composed by Williams) borrowed cues from each other are inaccurate. The version of "Main Title" on the FSM disc is the film version. It differs from the original soundtrack album version. There is a different balance of instruments in two spots, and in particular the snare drum is more prominent than the album version which also features additional cymbal work. Although the album was not a re-recording, the original LP tracks were recorded during the same sessions and several cues were combined. The film version sound was reportedly better than the quarter-inch WB two-track album master. Although some minor incidental cues were lost, some sonically 'damaged' cues – so called due to a deterioration of the surviving audio elements – are placed at the end of the disc's program time following the track "An Architect's Dream" which is used over the end credits sequence.[5]

  1. "Main Title" (5:01)
  2. "Something For Susan" (2:42)
  3. "Lisolette and Harlee" (2:35)
  4. "The Flame Ignites" (1:01)
  5. "More For Susan" (1:55)
  6. "Harlee Dressing" (1:37)
  7. "Let There Be Light" (:37)
  8. "Alone At Last" (:51)
  9. "We May Never Love Like This Again (Film Version)" – Maureen McGovern (2:04)
  10. "The First Victims" (3:24)
  11. "Not A Cigarette" (1:18)
  12. "Trapped Lovers" (4:44)
  13. "Doug's Fall/Piggy Back Ride" (2:18)
  14. "Lisolette's Descent" (3:07)
  15. "Down The Pipes/The Door Opens" (2:59)
  16. "Couples" (3:38)
  17. "Short Goodbyes" (2:26)
  18. "Helicopter Rescue" (3:07)
  19. "Passing The Word" (1:12)
  20. "Planting The Charges" (9:04)
  21. "Finale" (3:57)
  22. "An Architect's Dream" (3:28)
  23. "We May Never Love Like This Again (Album Version)" – Maureen McGovern (2:13)
  24. "The Morning After (Instrumental)" (2:07)
  25. "Susan And Doug (Album Track)" (2:33)
  26. "Departmental Pride and The Cat (Damaged)" (2:34)
  27. "Helicopter Explosion (Damaged)" (2:34)
  28. "Waking Up (Damaged)" (2:39)


Critical reception[edit]

The Towering Inferno met with positive reviews from critics, garnering an 71% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[6] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film as "the best of the mid-1970s wave of disaster films".[7]


Award Category Subject Result
Academy Award Best Supporting Actor Fred Astaire Nominated
Best Production Design William J. Creber Nominated
Ward Preston Nominated
Raphael Bretton Nominated
Best Original Song ("We May Never Love Like This Again") Al Kasha Won
Joel Hirschhorn Won
Best Original Score John Williams Nominated
Best Film Editing Carl Kress Won
Harold F. Kress Won
Best Sound Mixing Theodore Soderberg Nominated
Herman Lewis Nominated
Best Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp Won
Best Picture Irwin Allen Nominated
ACE Eddie Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic Carl Kress Nominated
Harold F. Kress Nominated
BAFTA Award Best Music John Williams Won
Best Production Design William J. Creber Nominated
Ward Preston Nominated
Raphael Bretton Nominated
Best Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Fred Astaire Won
Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Jennifer Jones Nominated
New Star of the Year – Actress Susan Flannery Won
Best Screenplay Stirling Silliphant Nominated
Best Original Song ("We May Never Love Like This Again") Al Kasha Nominated
Joel Hirschhorn Nominated


American Film Institute lists

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p257
  2. ^ "The Towering Inferno". The Numbers. Nash Information Services. Retrieved August 28, 2011. 
  3. ^ The Towering Inferno Masterprint at
  4. ^ Eldridge, Jeff (2001). John Williams. "The Towering Inferno". Film Score Monthly (CD insert notes). Culver City, California, U.S.A. 4 (3): 13. 
  5. ^ Additional notes by Geoff Brown – Melbourne, Australia.
  6. ^ "The Towering Inferno (1974)". Rotten Tomatoes. 
  7. ^ Roger Ebert Review
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills: Official Ballot" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  9. ^ "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Songs: Official Ballot" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  10. ^ "DeepSoul: The Trammps - "Disco Inferno"". Retrieved June 3, 2012. 

External links[edit]