This famous disaster film probably needs no introduction: an exceedingly large building catches fire putting lots of people in grave danger. The Towering Inferno alternates between epic spectacle and mediocre characterisation and dialogue - with a few exceptions.
Because of the scale of this disaster we're introduced briefly to numerous people. Chief amongst them is architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) whose effective but costly plans for the building have been ignored in favour of cheaper options by Jim Duncan (William Holden) and his son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain). Doug is also embroiled in a secret love affair with Susan (Faye Dunaway) but they're not the only ones keeping secrets - Danny Bigelow (Robert Wagner) has been sleeping with his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery) and they've decided to turn the phones off for a little peace and quiet while conman resident Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) has been planning to work his magic on Lisolette (Jennifer Jones) but when disaster strikes she's worried about saving the children of a deaf woman who she fears hasn't heard the alarm go off. There are many other characters we're introduced to during the course of the film but the most important of those unmentioned so far is Chief Mike O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) who has to coordinate the rescue attempts and an increasingly volatile situation.
It's difficult to care about most of the characters in this film because we're only fleetingly introduced to them. At one point I was more bothered about a cat being saved than most of the humans. Unsurprisingly, one of those I had most affection for was the conman played by Fred Astaire - he added a little charm to the opening sections and proved that even if he was past his dancing days he could still make a walk look musical. His love interest, Lisolette, is the character I think the audience takes to most. Her efforts to save a pair of children then combat her own fears to try and get to safety provide some of the most tension-ridden moments of the film. Because, although the spectacle of disaster films can enjoyable, tension must come out of caring for characters and what happens to them. That wasn't present far too often in this film.
On a visual level, The Towering Inferno is a joy to watch. It fails on an emotional level with some terrible dialogue and bizarre decisions to move the plot along. The set-up feels as though it takes too long, especially given that the time doesn't really endear the 'important' characters to the audience, and then the time between the fire starting and actually taking hold is also too long. In the midst of this there was supposed to be character tension but that really didn't work for me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching this as a disaster film with some excellent stunts and moments, although it isn't one I'll be eager to revisit in the future - if I do it'll be purely for Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones (and the cat).