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. Shortly after his arrival, an electrical short starts an undetected fire in a storage room on the 81st floor. Roberts goes to the building's electrical engineer Roger Simmons' house to confront Simmons of cutting corners. Simmons (who happens to be Duncan's son-in-law and husband to Duncan's daughter Patty) insists the building is up to standards. Patty, after witnessing the confrontation between Roberts and Simmons, is disappointed with her husband and holds him accountable should anything happen to her father's building.

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. While the party takes place, Roberts and engineer Will Giddings check wiring on the 83rd floor, confirming Roberts' suspicions that his electrical specifications were changed. Roberts calls the main utility room and discovers all the exterior lights have been turned on. Roberts informs the main utility room the outside lights are overloading the electrical system and orders them shut off. Smoke is seen from the 81st Floor storage room and the San Francisco Fire Department is summoned. Roberts and Giddings arrive on 81 to check more wiring, only to find the fire alarm going off and a security guard opening a door to the fire-engulfed storage room. Giddings is verbally unsuccessful in stopping the guard and decides to shove the guard out of the way. However, this action has fatal (and later deadly) results as Giddings is caught in a fire-flash while the door opens, completely burning him.

Roberts reports Giddings' accident and 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 also arrives. After meeting with Roberts and setting up a forward command at Roberts' office on the 79th floor, O'Halloran goes up to the Promenade Room on the 135th floor to get Duncan to evacuate the party. Duncan is still initially resistant, but reluctantly agrees after some coercion by O'Halloran. Before starting the evacuation, Duncan pulls Simmons aside and confronts him about any electrical corner and cost-cutting, to which Simmons admits to both. Duncan informs Simmons of the fire's presence and angrily reprimands Simmons, should he be the fire's cause. Duncan then makes an announcement to the guests about the fire and directs them to express elevators. Senator Parker and Mayor Ramsey help Duncan. A guest, Lisolette Mueller, who is being wooed by con man Harlee Claiborne, rushes to the 87th floor to check on a young family.

The express elevator evacuation from the Promenade Room is soon halted when the fire renders the express elevators unsafe. Not heeding Duncan's directions, one last group takes an elevator to the ground. This proves fatal as the group is killed when the elevator stops on the fire's floor and opens its doors, exposing the occupants to the deadly flames. The fire also traps Bigelow and his secretary/mistress Lorrie in his 65th floor office, killing them.

Duncan, Senator Parker and Mayor Ramsey redirect the evacuation to an external scenic elevator which allows a number of guests to evacuate despite a 12 person capacity. Security Chief Harry Jernigan and Roberts rescue Mueller and the family from the 87th floor after being notified by the security office there are still people on 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. Naval rescue teams arrive, but are instructed to stand by in the lobby by O'Halloran as conditions in the building render any setup next to the forward command impossible. With fire suppression efforts becoming ineffective, the building loses electrical power and O'Halloran's men are forced to rappel down an elevator shaft.

Two firemen who were earlier assigned by O'Halloran to climb the stairway from 79 to the Promenade Room have reached the 135th floor, where they blow open a cement-blocked door to the Promenade Room with C-4 explosives. However, due to an earlier explosion that collapsed part of the stairway during the firemen's ascent, the stairway is rendered unusable. Despite Duncan's warning, Simmons attempts an escape down the unusable stairway, but fire and an explosion further destroy the stairway, forcing Simmons to return to the Promenade Room. Mueller and the children reunite with Claiborne, while Roberts reunites with his girlfriend Susan, then meets with Duncan shortly after. Roberts tells Duncan of Giddings' death, then reprimands Duncan for his and Simmons' cost and corner cutting during construction. 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. Roberts rigs a gravity brake on the scenic elevator allowing 12 people, including Susan, Mueller, the children, and one of the firemen one trip down. An explosion rips the descending elevator off its track, only for it to hang by a single cable at the 110th floor, where Mueller falls to her death. O'Halloran and others save the rest.

Two SFFD deputy chiefs summon O'Halloran who all meet with a structural engineer to come up 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 begrudgingly accepts this task. Meanwhile, Simmons tells Duncan the women are evacuated as he and others will use the breeches buoy next. However, Duncan punches him, and tells the rest they all drew numbers and will take their turn, but he and Simmons will be the last to leave. O'Halloran calls Roberts and tells him the out of control fire is heading his way. O'Halloran then explains the plan of blowing the water tanks a few floors above the Promenade Room to Roberts, who also tells the remaining party-guests. 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, who is killed by an explosion moments later that causes the breeches buoy to become undone. O'Halloran meets with Roberts on the 138th floor to set C-4 on the six water tanks. They return to the Promenade Room and tie themselves down, as do the remaining guests. 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 Simmons 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]