The Towering Inferno

(1974) *** Pg
165 min. Warner Bros. Pictures International, 20th Century Fox. Directors: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen. Cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner.

/content/films/3498/2.jpgThe film opens on the whipping rotors of a helicopter, pulling back to reveal a flight along the California coastline. Shortly, John Williams' urgent score concurs, "That's right: this picture will be exciting!" Not yet convinced? A superimposed credit serves as clincher: "Irwin Allen's production of...THE TOWERING INFERNO." Okay, it may not be Shakespeare, but it'll be a hot time in the old town tonight. John Guillerman gets the principal director credit here, but he's overshadowed by old-time showman Allen, the king of the all-star disaster pictures (like 1972's The Poseidon Adventure). In fact, Allen insisted on directing the film's action sequences himself, while Guillerman focused on all of the "acting" scenes. Allen's vision for the film was so big that he convinced the suits of two studios to combine two novels (Richard Martin Stern's The Tower and Thomas N. Scortia's The Glass Inferno) into a single screenplay by Oscar winner Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night).

A Titanic tale of hubris, The Towering Inferno concerns a fire that breaks out in the fictional 138-story Glass Tower, the tallest building in the world. Speaking of stories, this movie has more than most, serving an ensemble that includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, and Robert Wagner, among others. The Glass Tower, the pride of Duncan Enterprises, overshadows San Francisco, and all eyes are on the tower on the evening of its dedication gala. Unfortunately, architect Doug Roberts (Newman) gets wind of corner-cutting changes to his specs when a fire breaks out in a storage closet on the 81st floor. The safety-unconscious James Duncan (Holden), believing the fire to be easily containable, goes on with the show of entertaining San Francisco's glitterati and potentially helpful guest-of-honor Senator Gary Parker (Vaughn).

Naturally, things go from bad to worse, and soon everyone in the building—including Doug's girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway), Duncan's daughter Patty (Blakely) and corrupt son-in-law Roger (Richard Chamberlain), and a con man (Fred Astaire) and his rich-widow mark (Jones)—faces the potentially fatal consequences of Roger cutting corners, Duncan looking the other way, and Doug not being more involved in making sure his specs were being honored. Doug laments, "I thought we were building something...where people could work and live and be safe!" As he investigates the degree to which the building is unsafe, he finds himself rescuing a family and making his way to the penthouse where the party guests await rescue. In charge of the rescue operations is super-competent SFFD Battalion Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (McQueen), who grimly does his job while cursing the men who made it necessary (Allen dedicates the picture to "to the fire fighters of the world").

/content/films/3498/1.jpgIt is, of course, a testament to Allen's big thinking and production acumen that The Towering Inferno even exists (its cost demanded the first studio co-production, now a regular practice), but even more remarkable is that the film holds up. It's as exciting today as it was on its release thirty-five years ago. In a post-9/11 world, though, its pleasures have become even more guilty. Now that real-life images of a high-rise deathtrap have been branded into the public consciousness, the film has a diminshed audience. On the bright side, it'll take much longer for The Towering Inferno to be pillaged by a modern remake, a fate already endured more than once by The Poseidon Adventure.

At any rate, The Towering Inferno remains genuinely spectacular and exciting with its world-class special effects and stunts. The picture won Oscars for Cinematography (Fred J. Koenekamp & Joseph F. Biroc, the latter credited for shooting the action sequences with Allen), Editing (Carl Kress & Harold F. Kress), and Song (Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn's amusingly apt "We May Never Love Like This Again"). In its dramatic particulars, Silliphant's script amounts to cheesy melodrama, an unavoidable pitfall of a movie with this many characters and the demands of a central and hungry fire. But The Towering Inferno's impact comes not so much as a drama or an action movie but as a horror movie, one that's knot-in-the-stomach scary from the moment the fire gets out of control to the last-ditch heroics that come hours later.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 4.0 Surroun

Street date: 7/14/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

For Blu-ray, Fox delivers a hi-def upgrade for The Towering Inferno that, well, towers above previous presentations. The image is sharper and contrast is excellent. The only problem, to my eye, is that the tone seems to be dialed up  a bit too high, resulting in reddened flesh-tones that suggest an overall over-saturation to this transfer. Once you're adjusted to that, the transfer is otherwise blazingly brilliant. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundscape reveals the surround limitations of the 35-year-old mix, but it seems obvious this clear and exciting mix also makes the absolute most of what's there, including John Williams' score.

Fox gathers an astonishing array of bonus features to support this popular catalog title, beginning with an Audio Commentary by Film Historian F.X. Feeney; Scene-Specific Commentary by Mike Vézina, Special Effects Director on X-Men: The Last Stand; and Scene-Specific Commentary by Branko Racki, Stunt Coordinator: Montreal on The Day After Tomorrow. The unifying traits of these commentaries are awe, respect, and affection, as professional fans explain what was accomplished and why it was so impressive (if that isn't already obvious).

Next up are thirty-three "Extended and Deleted Scenes" (44:58, SD) that come in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (no doubt because these scenes for years padded out extended television broadcasts of the film).

A wealth of Featurettes, each distinguished by great stories and outtakes from production B-roll, follows, beginning with "Inside The Tower: We Remember" (8:15, SD). CAst and crew share their recollections; participants include Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, production illustrator Joseph Musso, Susan Blakely, technical adviser Peter Lucarelli, and Susan Flannery.

"Innovating Tower: The SPFX of An Inferno" (6:55, SD) includes comments from Vezina, director of photography Fred Koenekamp, Irwin Allen (vintage), Musso, and Flannery. "The Art of Towering" (5:17, SD) gathers production illustrator Nikita Knatz, production illustrator Dan Goozee, and Musso.

"Irwin Allen: The Great Producer" (6:25, SD) is a tribute with Vaughn, Koenekamp, Chamberlain, Carol Lynley, Musso, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens, Blakely, Knatz, Lucarelli, Flannery, Ernie Orsatti, and Goozee. "Directing The Inferno" (4:28, SD) allows Flannery, Blakely, Koenekamp, Vaughn, Musso, and Chamberlain to give director John Guillerman his due.

"Putting Out Fire" (4:58, SD) looks at the film's practical effects. Interviewees include Allen (vintage), Koenekamp, Lucarelli, and Flannery. "Running On Fire" (5:52, SD) focuses on stunts, with stuntman Lightning Bear, stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, Chamberlain, Vaughn, Lucarelli, and Orsatti.

"Still The World's Tallest Building" (8:23, SD) looks at the architecture of skyscrapers, putting the film's fictional San Francisco tower into a real-world context. "The Writer: Stirling Silliphant" (9:16, SD) honors the screenwriter; participants include former agent Don Kopaloff, First Blood & Brotherhood of the Rose author David Morrell, author and story consultant Christopher Vogler, Stevens, Musso, Goozee, Knatz, and The Grass Harp director Charles Matthau.

The 2001 AMC documentary "Backstory: The Towering Inferno" (22:08, SD) includes rare bloopers and interviews with Robert Wagner, Allen (1975), production designer William Creber, costume designer Paul Zastupnevich (1995), Orsatti, Blakely, Sheila Allen, and Koenekamp.

The disc includes six Storyboard-To-Film Comparisons (SD) and a suite of Vintage Promotional Material: "NATO Presentation Reel" (11:08, SD), "Original 1974 Featurette #1" (8:15, SD), "Original 1974 Featurette #2" (7:20, SD),"1977 Irwin Allen Interview" (12:18, SD), "The Towering Inferno Teaser" (1:34, SD), "The Towering Inferno Trailer" (2:12, SD), "The Poseidon Adventure Trailer" (3:15, SD)

Last but not least are three Interactive Articles From American Cinematographer (HD) and several Still Galleries (Shot Compositions, Publicity, Behind The Scenes, Conceptual Sketches, Costumes).

Irwin Allen thought big, and this disc is his match...bring on The Poseidon Adventure!

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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