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
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 $14,265,000[1]
Box office $139,700,000[2]

The Towering Inferno is a 1974 American action drama disaster film produced by Irwin Allen featuring an all-star cast led by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. 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 (Newman) returns to San Francisco for the dedication of the Glass Tower, which he designed for multi-national contractor James Duncan (Holden). At 138 stories (1,800ft/550m), it is the world's tallest building. Whilst engineers test the building's systems, an electrical fault burns out an electrical cabinet in the Main Utility Room. Doug Roberts inspects the wiring and discovers it is inferior to his specification, leading him to accuse the building's electrical engineer, Roger Simmons (Chamberlain), of cutting corners. Simmons, who is owner James Duncan's son-in-law, insists the building is up to current safety standards. In the meantime, an electrical switch on the 81st floor overloads and explodes due to the Main Utility Room overload, setting the utility room on fire.

During the high-profile dedication ceremony, public relations chief Dan Bigelow (Wagner) orders all the tower's lights to be turned on to impress the attending guests and dignitaries. The lighting overloads the electrical system, and Roberts orders the excess lighting to be shut off. Smoke is seen on the 81st floor, and the San Francisco Fire Department is summoned. Roberts and engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) go to the 81st floor but fail to prevent a security guard from opening the utility room door, triggering a flash fire which fatally burns Giddings and allows the fire to spread.

Roberts reports the fire to a dismissive Duncan, who refuses to order an evacuation of the 135th floor Promenade Room restaurant, where 294 guests are attending a celebration dinner. The fire department arrives to tackle the blaze, which quickly escalates to a multiple-alarm fire. SFFD 5th Battalion Chief Michael O'Halloran (McQueen) forces Duncan to evacuate the party guests from the Promenade Room via the express elevators. A guest, Lisolette Mueller (Jones), who is being wooed by con man Harlee Claiborne (Astaire), rushes to the 87th floor to check on a young family. Simmons admits to Duncan that he cut corners to stay under budget, and questions what other corners Duncan may have cut.

By this point, the electrical wiring is causing fires to break out all over the building whilst a full-scale evacuation is underway. Duncan, aided by Senator Gary Parker (Vaughn) and Mayor Robert Ramsey (Jack Collins), directs the elevator evacuation from the Promenade Room until the fire spreads and renders the express elevators unsafe. Not heeding Duncan's directions, one last group forces their way into the express elevator, which malfunctions and stops on the fire's floor, incinerating everyone inside. The fire traps Bigelow and his secretary/mistress Lorrie (Flannery) in his 65th floor office; Bigelow burns to death trying to escape, and a flashover pushes Lorrie out of a window, killing her.

Security Chief Harry Jernigan (Simpson) and Roberts rescue Lisolette and the family from the 87th floor. Jernigan gets the mother out safely but Roberts, Lisolette, and the two children are halted by a collapsed stairwell with mangled metal handrails. They survive a perilous climb down the collapsed stairs, but fire forces them up to the Promenade Room, where they find the door is blocked by spilled cement. As fire suppression efforts rapidly become ineffective, the building loses all electrical power, and O'Halloran and his men are forced to rappel down an elevator shaft. Firemen are sent to the Promenade Room to rescue Roberts' group, but the stairwell collapses below them from an explosion on the 106th floor, rendering the last remaining exit to ground level impassable. The firemen use plastic explosives to free the door to the Promenade Room. Simmons makes a desperate and futile attempt to escape down the stairwell, but he is thwarted by the flames - which by now have reached the 130th floor - and then is knocked unconscious by another explosion.

A rooftop rescue attempt results in disaster as guests rush the helicopter, causing it to crash amidst high winds, 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 Duncan's daughter, Simmons' wife Patty (Blakely). Roberts rigs a gravity brake on the external scenic elevator, providing a one-way trip to street level for twelve people, including the Mayor's wife, Roberts' girlfriend Susan Franklin (Dunaway), Lisolette, the children, and a fireman. An explosion leaves the elevator cab hanging by a single cable at the 110th floor, and Lisolette falls to her death after a glass panel breaks off in the explosion. O'Halloran is dispatched in a helicopter with a winch and a cutting torch, and - with the assistance of the fireman in the elevator - he saves the rest of the passengers.

Once all the women escape by the breeches buoy, Simmons arrogantly tells Duncan that he and his associates will use the breeches buoy next. Duncan punches him and pushes him aside, saying the rest will draw numbers, but he and his son-in-law will be the last two to leave the building. 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, who is then himself killed along with several others by an explosion which destroys the breeches buoy.

A SFFD Deputy Chief (Coleman) summons O'Halloran with a plan to explode the million-gallon water tanks atop the building in an effort to extinguish the fires below. Knowing it could result in his death, O'Halloran agrees to the plan. He meets with Roberts, and they set plastic explosives on the six water tanks on the 137th floor. They return to the Promenade Room, where the remaining guests tie themselves to heavy objects to withstand the forthcoming deluge. The charges explode, with a torrent of water rushing down through the building, eventually extinguishing the flames. O'Halloran, Roberts, Duncan, and Claiborne survive, but other party-goers perish, including the Mayor, who is swept away by the rush of water.

On the ground, Claiborne learns that Lisolette died, and he is heartbroken. Jernigan gives him her pet cat. Duncan consoles his daughter Patty over her husband's death but does not disclose the cowardly way in which he died. Roberts tells 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 final casualty toll numbered less than 200, O'Halloran says they were lucky because it could have been much worse. O'Halloran offers to advise Roberts how to design buildings with fire safety in mind; Roberts accepts. O'Halloran drives away, exhausted.


Small parts played by actors who appeared in The Poseidon Adventure, which Irwin Allen also produced, include John Crawford, Erik Nelson, Elizabeth Rogers, Ernie Orsatti, and Sheila Matthews. The acrophobic fireman who was afraid to rappel down the elevator shaft was played by Paul Newman's son, Scott. Mike Lookinland, formerly Bobby Brady in The Brady Bunch, appeared as Phillip Allbright, the boy who shares the staircase adventure with Newman and Jennifer Jones. Maureen McGovern was the woman singing at the party.

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. 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.


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 31 October and 4, 7 and 11 November 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 Hirschorn 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 1 April 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 77% "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)
  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]