Irwin Allen's "The Towering Inferno" (1974) was hardly my favorite 1970s-era disaster epic. Bloated and overlong, it featured a cast of mostly wealthy fat-cat characters (except for Jennifer Jones' heroic, yet tragic, Lisolette) who you barely cared whether they would survive. Next to Jennifer Jones, probably the most sympathetic character in the movie was Steve McQueen's smart, cool-headed San Francisco Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael O'Hallorhan. From the moment McQueen arrives on the scene, at the 43 minute mark of the movie, you know that there is finally someone who can take command of a situation that has gone dangerously out of control. This is due in no small part to the commitment that McQueen brings to the role, in contrast to all the other actors who just show up to collect a paycheck.
My understanding is that McQueen was originally offered the role that Paul Newman ultimately played in the movie, the architect responsible for designing the 138 story Glass Tower that is the centerpiece of the movie. However, McQueen was more attracted to the comparatively smaller role of the fire chief who helps resolve the catastrophe with his steely calm and ingenuity, a role originally slated for Ernest Borgnine. McQueen wanted to play the fire chief because he felt O'Hallorhan was the character who is working to solve the situation, whereas the architect was the character who McQueen felt was, in essence, responsible for the disaster for having designed the building. McQueen proposed to Allen that he play the fire chief, if the role could be beefed up, and suggested that Allen cast a star of equal magnitude to play the architect instead.
Evidently, when Irwin Allen cast Paul Newman as the architect, this tickled McQueen because it allowed him an opportunity to verbally chastise Newman on-screen throughout the movie because of his character having designed such a dangerously tall fire trap. (Steve McQueen purportedly always felt a sense of professional rivalry with Paul Newman ever since he played a bit part in Newman's 1956 movie "Somebody Up There Likes Me.") According to press releases, McQueen researched his role by accompanying fire chiefs to the location of a blaze that broke out at the legendary Goldwyn Studios and lent a hand to help put out the flames. If it were any other movie star, I wouldn't believe that anecdote, but because we're talking about the daredevil Steve McQueen, I'll give the story the benefit of the doubt. All of this demonstrates to me the level of commitment and enthusiasm that McQueen brought to this role, which is why his performance stands out from all the others in this film.
McQueen's O'Hallorhan makes a spectacular late entrance in "The Towering Inferno," the last of all the main characters to be introduced, pulling up to the scene of the fire in his fiery red fire chief's sedan at such a high speed that he looks like he's dangerously close to spinning out of control. But O'Hallorhan is such a cool, controlled cat that, just as the sedan looks like it's on the brink of crashing into the barricades, he suddenly brings the car under control within seconds and pulls to a fast stop. O'Hallorhan cuts a dashing figure as he leaps out of the vehicle wearing black slacks, white short sleeved dress shirt, and black tie. He quickly dons a firefighter coat over his uniform, with his dress shirt and black tie still showing through, which allows O'Hallorhan to look both enviably dapper and rugged at the same time.
Unlike the other characters in "The Towering Inferno," there is no backstory to O'Hallorhan (except that he wears a wedding ring, suggesting that he has a wife and family that he wants to stay alive and go home to) and none is needed. McQueen's textured performance provides all the details we need to understand the essence of this man. The moment McQueen's O'Hallorhan meets Paul Newman's blandly named architect Doug Roberts, you can sense the mild contempt O'Hallorhan feels for Roberts for having designed such a tall building. O'Hallorhan doesn't even shake Roberts' hand when he is introduced to him and, as they ride up the elevator to the 79th floor, he can't help but mutter under his breath "Architects." When the self-pitying Roberts responds, "Yeah, it's all our fault," O'Hallorhan explains himself, "Now you know there's no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the seventh floor. But you guys keep building them as high as you can." When Roberts lamely challenges O'Hallorhan by saying "Hey, are you here to take me on or the fire?" O'Hallorhan stares back and doesn't bother responding, knowing full well that he's already made his point.
One reason why O'Hallorhan is such a likeable character is because Paul Newman's Doug Roberts is a self-pitying Henny Penny, spending the entire film ineffectually warning everyone that the sky is falling. Despite his concerns, he never really does anything effective to warn people of the disaster that could result due to the substandard electrical equipment that he has discovered the building has been wired with, and doesn't do enough to defy the owner of the building James Duncan (William Holden, wearing the worst pair of glasses known to mankind) when he urges Duncan to call for an evacuation of the guests celebrating the opening of the building on the 135th floor Promenade Room. Roberts warns Duncan about the fire and is overruled, and Roberts meekly accepts this and doesn't do anything further.
In fact, it's not until Roberts informs O'Hallorhan of the party taking place on the top floor that something is finally done to warn the guests. When O'Hallorhan sagely asks Roberts "Well why didn't you get the them the hell out of there?" Roberts lamely challenges O'Hallorhan with, "Why don't you go upstairs and talk to Duncan? He ain't exactly listening to me." O'Hallorhan simply responds with, "I will" and goes up to carry out the job that Roberts wasn't man enough to do. I like the brief scene in the elevator going up to the Promenade Room where O'Hallorhan thinks for a moment, hesitates, and then reaches up to take off his fire chief helmet and firefighters coat so that his appearance doesn't cause a sudden panic the moment he steps off the elevator. The subtle choices that McQueen makes in this scene demonstrates the degree to which he was continuously conscientious about doing justice to this role.
I like the manner in which McQueen is always able to get his way in this movie without being overbearing or smug. He plays O'Hallorhan with a direct firmness that demonstrates his natural leadership abilities. In the scene in which O'Hallorhan tries to convince William Holden's Duncan that the partygoers should be evacuated, McQueen never raises his voice to get his point across, nor seems annoyed or perturbed when Duncan tries to pull rank on O'Hallorhan by informing him that the Mayor of the city is in attendance and that he can order O'Hallorhan to cease his efforts to ruin the party by calling for an evacuation. O'Hallorhan calmly tells Duncan, "When there's a fire, I outrank everybody here. Now one thing we don't want is a panic. Now I could tell 'em, but you ought to do it. Just make a nice cool announcement to all your guests and tell 'em the party's being moved down below the fire floor. Right now." McQueen is the epitome of authority while delivering that line. I especially like how McQueen subtly looks down at William Holden's hand when Duncan grabs O'Hallorhan by the arm to try and stop him from making a public announcement about the fire, almost as if to silently say "Did you just touch me?" McQueen makes it clear in this scene that O'Hallorhan is a politically savvy individual who doesn't suffer fools gladly.
And we're glad that O'Hallorhan knows how to handle any situation because those skills prove to be invaluable in dealing with genuinely life-threatening situations. When O'Hallorhan and the other firefighters realize that the elevators aren't working and they must rappel down several floors by rope through the elevator shaft, a cowardly firefighter (played by Paul Newman's late son Scott Newman) says "I can't make it. I'll fall. I know I'll fall." O'Hallorhan never loses his cool nor raises his voice at the cowardly firefighter. He simply says "OK. Then you better go first. That way when you fall, you won't take any of us with you." O"Hallorhan demonstrates that he has no time for self-pity at a time like this, and McQueen delivers the line in a matter-of-fact manner, not with any jokey sense of irony that a contemporary actor might have played it.
O'Hallorhan's lack of self-pity is another reason why his character is more sympathetic than Paul Newman's Doug Roberts character. Not only is Roberts ineffectual at trying to resolve the crisis, but he spends the entire movie feeling sorry for himself, almost as if to absolve himself of the guilt he feels for having designed the building which led to the deaths of so many people. O'Hallorhan is a man who has, evidently, faced death before and has learned he doesn't have the luxury for self-indulgent self-reflection because he's too busy trying to stop the fire. But O'Hallorhan also has compassion and human decency as well. After he and the cowardly firefighter are able to rappel down the elevator shaft, McQueen shoots Scott Newman an approving smile that silently says "You did good, kid" to let us know he still respects him.
Throughout "The Towering Inferno," McQueen brings a lot of subtle touches to the role that help bring depth to the character and to the film. After the harrowing sequence when O'Hallorhan rescues the women trapped on the dangling scenic elevator that had been blown off its tracks by an explosion, and holds onto a young firefighter by one hand from the roof of the scenic elevator until it is brought to the ground, there's a striking scene showing O'Hallorhan sitting on the ground in the lobby of the Glass Tower, his back to the wall amidst a row of other firefighters also taking a well-earned rest from their duties. McQueen blankly stares straight ahead, as if O'Hallorhan is lost in his thoughts, until he is called to duty once again. In one brief shot, McQueen demonstrates the emotional toll that weighs on the conscience of rescue workers in times of disaster. In so doing, McQueen reminds us that O'Hallorhan is no larger-than-life Superman, but a courageous and talented human being who is simply doing his job.
At the end of "The Towering Inferno," O'Hallorhan is getting ready to leave when he stops and takes a look at the body bags for all the firefighters who lost their lives in the course of the evening. McQueen looks quietly and calmly, without any sense of self-pity, but with a genuine sense of respect, sadness, and gratitude for their sacrifice, and turns and walks away. As McQueen's O'Hallorhan exits, Paul Newman's architect sits on the steps outside the building with his girlfriend Faye Dunaway (in one of her most thankless roles) and muses aloud "I don't know. Maybe they just ought to leave it the way it is. A kind of shrine to all the bullsh-t in the world." Newman's line helps underscore the whiney, defeatist attitude that turned me off to his character, Doug Roberts, and which probably turned McQueen off to the role when Irwin Allen originally offered it to him.
It's easy to see why McQueen was more interested in playing the fire chief, especially since O'Hallorhan ends the movie by looking down at the seated Roberts and telling him, "You know, we were lucky tonight. Body count's less than 200. You know, one of these days, they're gonna kill 10,000 in one of these fire traps. And I'm gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build 'em." A humbled Doug Roberts can only look up to O'Hallorhan from where he is seated and respond with, "OK, I'm asking." O'Hallorhan smiles and says "You know where to reach me. So long architect." O'Hallorhan calmly turns around, gets into the fire chief sedan he arrived in and, unlike almost all the other characters in the movie, leaves the same way he arrived. As with the rest of their interaction in "The Towering Inferno," Steve McQueen remains in control of the situation over Paul Newman, even after the disaster has been resolved.
I always liked Steve McQueen better than Paul Newman. There was always a genuine ruggedness about McQueen, both on-screen and off-, that made him more appealing to me than Newman, who always struck me as being entitled and elitist. The stories I've read concerning McQueen's difficult childhood definitely gave him more grit and gravitas compared to Newman's bourgeois middle class upbringing. Yes, both McQueen and Newman raced cars and rode motorcycles, but with McQueen it seemed more like a natural extension of his personality, whereas with Newman it always seemed affected, like he was a spoiled rich kid putting on airs. Steve McQueen was a real man, whereas Newman always remained a pretty boy. One thing I enjoy about watching "The Towering Inferno" is studying their interaction on-screen together. They don't have any genuine chemistry, because I get the impression the two men don't particularly care to be acting opposite each other, but that tension and disconnect between them is fascinating and actually works in favor of the movie. Newman always comes off in the movie as overly self-conscious as to how his character will be regarded because he designed the building, whereas McQueen doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him in the course of the story. Newman's listless sincerity just doesn't seem as impressive next to McQueen's can-do self-assurance. In so doing, Steve McQueen's fine work in "The Towering Inferno" helps to demonstrates how he was a cooler cat than Paul Newman ever was.