When the duo got to 1974, and a split screen revealed the five Best Picture nominees for that year, Ebert expressed some amusement at "The Towering Inferno's" nomination, when compared with the others ("Chinatown," "The Conversation," "Lenny" and the winner, "The Godfather Part II."). But while it was not the best film in a truly great year for the medium, "Inferno" did deserve to be considered one of the best.
This is polished, professional filmmaking. It was not intended to be a scathing expose of construction politics, or an actor's showcase. "The Towering Inferno" never tries to be anything more than an action spectacular, pure and simple, and on that level, it has few equals.
The film has been criticized for being almost gleeful in its depiction of various deaths, but I'm not sure what those critics would have had directors John Guillermin and Irwin Allen do. The story is about a giant skyscraper on fire, which means that the primary dangers involved are burning, falling, smoke inhalation and being buried under tons of debris. All of these are horrific, and "Inferno" conveys that horror.
The movie takes on a different hue than the Irwin Allen film it's inevitably compared to, "The Poseidon Adventure," the minute Steve McQueen arrives at the scene as the San Francisco Fire Dept.'s battalion chief, O'Hallorhan. Unlike "Poseidon," in which a small band of ship passengers follows a layman toward safety, the "Inferno" disaster is going to be taken on by a competent, experienced professional, leading other professionals. McQueen conveys an authority that anchors the film.
None of the acting struck me as truly bad, even in action-oriented scenes that called for broad playing. Aside from McQueen, my favorite performances were those of Susan Flannery and Jennifer Jones. Flannery makes the most of a small but memorable part as Robert Wagner's love interest, while Jones, looking very good for a woman of 55, plays the kind, heroic love of Fred Astaire's con man character.
Fred Koenekamp's cinematography received a well-deserved Academy Award, as did L.B. Abbott's special effects. The song "We May Never Love Like This Again," sung by Maureen McGovern, also won an Oscar, though I found it to be forgettable. "The Poseidon Adventure's" similar "The Morning After" is much better (which will certainly be faint praise to some).
John Williams' Oscar-nominated score would have been a perfectly reasonable choice as the winner, though Jerry Goldsmith's evocation of film noir classics for "Chinatown" was probably the year's best. Carmine Coppola and Nino Rota wound up winning for "The Godfather Part II."
Williams is in majestic form here. The main title is appropriately busy and exciting, the love themes for the Paul Newman/Faye Dunaway and Astaire/Jones duos are poignant, and the finale is one of the masterpieces of the art. This is a justifiably a favorite score among film music buffs, and Williams' greatest triumph, in my opinion, until "Star Wars" in 1977.
"The Towering Inferno" is a must for action film fans, and the finest representation of the "disaster film" genre.