Let us stipulate at the outset that pre-CGI disaster movies sit in the softest spot in my heart. When I was a kid, you couldn’t keep me away from them. The first movie I saw without a parent was The Poseidon Adventure (’72) at The Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. My mom had a small gift shop appended to that theater, so they let me and a friend come in to see whatever we wanted. In that dark movie house, sitting with Jimmy Sullivan, jujifruits in hand, I was IN that dank, doomed ship and with that besieged group led by another cool priest (Gene Hackman, though he never rivaled Jason Miller in The Exorcist). With poor Roddy McDowell and his shattered and bloody kneecap and Stella Stevens, Ernie Borgnine’s tough talking, busty wife, who had the moxie to tell the heavier Shelly Winters that, um, no, she’s going into the tube first: “I’m going next. So if ole’ fat ass gets stuck, I won’t get stuck behind her.” I’m 9 years old. That was something. Throw in pre-Nancy Drew (Pamela Sue Martin).
I was lost to it all.
I inhaled everything that came next. Earthquake (’74) (in Sensurround!) Oh my God, Charlton Heston, don’t you dare give up Genevieve Bujold to jump in the sewers and save a doomed Ava Gardner!
All the Airports (’70, ’75, ’77, and ’79). I loved George Kennedy and later, when I saw him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I was shocked that such a gruff teddy bear could play such an awful villain.
You can throw in The Hindenburg (’75) as well, though I kind of knew how that was going to end.
I even went to the theater to see The Swarm (’78). Killer bees are, apparently, an ever-present threat to nuclear reactors.
Then there were the disasters created by bad men (not just the poor salesman who blew up the airliner in Airport because he needed to leave his wife an insurance payoff).
Juggernaut (’74) – an ocean liner is rigged to blow (red wire or green wire!!!) and the bomb squad, led by Richard Harris, has to be dropped on the ship in rough seas to defuse the bomb. I’m still haunted by the scene of a member of the bomb squad missing the ship and just being . . . . left. Liners cannot turn around.
Black Sunday (’77) – a blimp threatens The Super Bowl, helmed by the deadly serious Robert Shaw and an intriguing Marthe Keller (first German I ever had a crush on)
Rollercoaster (’77) – Tim Bottoms blowing up my favorite rides, including King’s Dominion’s The Rebel Yell (since re-christened The Rebel Scum)
Okay, that’s a long preamble. The Towering Inferno has it all. Let me count the ways.
1) Stars. Yuge stars! Bigly stars! McQueen. Newman. Dunaway. Holden. Come on.
2) OJ Simpson as a good guy. He knows the security is for shit. He lets McQueen know the place is a tinderbox, and then he saves a deaf woman. And a cat.
3) Shocking deaths. They kill Robert Wagner and all he did was sleep with his secretary in the upper offices after foolishly having the phones cut off for privacy (by the way, I think his secretary is 10 years older than Wagner, which is pretty advanced). Jennifer Jones seems as safe as any character can be, and then, boom, she just falls out of elevator and they bounce her off the structure. My Lord, the genial bartender who was later a regular on Barney Miller, he gets crushed.
4) Moments of great bravery. By the innocent and even those a little bit responsible. Guess what? In 1974, it was still women and children first. Even Richard Chamberlain, Holden’s shit-bird son-in-law who took kickbacks on the crappy wiring and dysfunctional sprinkler system, waited to try and jump the escape line after the women and children were evacuated. Holden ain’t clean, but he rises to the occasion announcing, much like a ship captain, that he will go down with the skyscraper. Robert Vaughan is a United States senator and he buys it trying to keep Chamberlain from jumping the line. And Wagner’s attempt to save his secretary is akin to a singular Charge of the Light Brigade.
6) It works. At its’ silliest (you only learn about the million gallons of water on the top of the building in the last 20 minutes), it is always watchable.
7) Professional camaraderie. Steve McQueen’s number two in the San Francisco police department in Bullitt was his number two in the San Francisco fire department.
On HBO Max.