So The Poseidon Adventure might still offer the same guiltless pleasure that affords a splashy remake, but don’t expect a remake of Irwin Allen’s 1974 follow-up The Towering Inferno anytime soon. In nearly every reasonable sense it’s the far more accomplished of the two famed Allen disaster epics. It’s got more controlled pacing, less iffy toy-boat-in-tank effects, and a classically tragic structure ripped from the myth of the Titanic: a ritzy debutante’s ball in honor of the debut of new, cutting-edge technology. But damned if it’s not awfully difficult to find many people who love Towering Inferno as they do Poseidon Adventure, despite the fact that they’re practically ripped from the same cloth.
It’s completely understandable. Whereas there was a certain exotic mystique to disaster hitting a luxury liner, and a bizarre gothic ornateness to the myriad dimensions of how many ways an overturned structure can become an industrial funhouse of torture, being trapped in a burning skyscraper isn’t so wildly unimaginable that one could escape a screening of Towering Inferno guiltlessly un-singed. In February of ‘74, mere months before filming commenced on the film, a new skyscraper in São Paulo broke out in flames, leading to the deaths of nearly 200 people. (At the end of the film, Steve McQueen’s fire chief cites that very ballpark figure as the fictional Glass Tower’s head count.)
Consequently, everything about Towering Inferno means business compared to the goon show undercurrent of Poseidon Adventure. There’s more razzle, no time for dazzle, a far more serious cross-section of superstars (very few has-beens or character actors populating this adventure) playing far less memorable non-characters. It took two studios collaborating on two novels to eradicate anything resembling personality out of this multimillion-dollar necrology. The fact that it was Towering Inferno and not Poseidon Adventure that managed to scrape up an Oscar nomination for Best Picture pays tribute to the film’s overriding seriousness (or humorlessness, depending on your view).
And then there’s the World Trade Center, which actually played a prominent role in one of the two adapted books as the shorter skyscraper down the block where the breach-buoy rescue line establishes its receiving station to rescue the poor rich society figureheads trapped on the promenade deck of the burning building. When the images of September 11 were still coming through our television sets unfiltered and we could see real life versions of Jennifer Jones plunging, then ricocheting off the side of the building as she met her eerily casual death, the defensive mantra “It looks like that movie” again testified not to the wizardry of effects technicians but Towering Inferno‘s anti-campy gravity. Bodies in Poseidon Adventure are sheep, too stupid to save themselves. Bodies in Towering Inferno are, as Paul Newman and Premiere‘s Bad Movies We Love say, hamburgers, consumed for the protein of Allen’s alleged civic altruism.
And yet, Towering Inferno trumps Poseidon Adventure where it probably mattered most to Allen: size. It’s even more phallic than Titanic, appropriately stiff (in every which way) as a result of the then-engorged rush of spermy box-office dollars pumping new life into a Hollywood desperate for a new genre trick. Fresh off of the vindication of Poseidon Adventure, Allen is noticeably riding that cash cow for all it’s worth. Hence the two completely different endings to otherwise same-y plotlines. Poseidon Adventure ended on a plaintive, morose question mark, with Gene Hackman’s agnostic reverend rediscovering his active relationship with God just in time to realize that he still didn’t save but six damned people, and even finishing that job will cost him his blood.
Towering Inferno‘s glass-spangled erection burns with an uncontrollable lust for spectacle until fire chief McQueen and architect Paul Newman and their dueling baby-blue glares detonate the millions of gallons of water sitting at the top of the building. The result? 137 stories worth of skeet-skeet to those windows and those walls, capped off with a quintessentially masculine bit of post-coital withdrawal when Newman grunts “Maybe they ought to just leave it like that as a sort of shrine to all the bullshit in the world.” Sure, and while Allen fiddles, Universal Studio’s brilliantly trashy Earthquake, which Pauline Kael rightly preferred to any of Allen’s hits, was showing L.A. burning down to the ground, portending the predictable end of a cycle as well as a premature postmortem on the one period where it almost looked like Hollywood cinema would be saved from its addiction to blockbusters. And…well, we all know how that story went.