20th Century Fox | 1974 | 165 mins | Rated PG
Produced and co-directed by the “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm), 1974’s The Towering Inferno is by far the best of the genre. At a whopping 165 minutes, this star studded, action packed extravaganza is never dull and manages to keep viewers entertained until the very end. The film was adapted for the screen by Academy Award winner Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) from the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, after initial plans to make separate films based on each book were scrapped to avoid similarities.
At a then staggering budget of $14 million (over $58 million adjusted for inflation 1974-2005), The Towering Inferno is an example of big budget moviemaking at its best. Despite all of the big name stars, the central focus of the film is a colossal 135-floor San Francisco skyscraper which, through a combination of expertly constructed models and convincing special effects, the audience believes is real.
It’s dedication day of the newly completed Glass Tower in San Francisco. At 135 stories, it’s the tallest building in the world and a fancy party is planned in the buildings top floor restaurant. Even before the glitterati arrive, there are signs of trouble; a generator shorts out and a small fire starts in an equipment room. The building supposedly has state-of the-art communications and security equipment but much of it doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and builder Jim Duncan (William Holden) don’t know that Duncan’s cost-cutting son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) has compromised safety for profit. Predictably, the small fire doesn’t stay that way for long and fire Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) is quickly on the scene.
While Irwin Allen handled the directing chores on the action sequences, British director John Guillerman (the 1976 version of King Kong), handled the dialogue driven scenes. In these days of CGI wizardry, it’s important to remember that those are real flames and that is really is two million gallons of water rushing through a Hollywood sound stage. It’s no wonder it took two directors to get The Towering Inferno into theaters within six months. One of the films biggest accomplishments is how skillfully Guillerman weaves the drama with the action sequences. He keeps things moving without sacrificing the quality of the dialogue. At the same time, the dialogue never takes away from the action at the center of the picture.
Though Silliphant was given the difficult task of writing dialogue for three major stars in Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and William Holden, he wrote wonderful parts for supporting actors Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones. Harlee Clairbone (Astaire) is a down-on-his-luck con man hoping to pull one last job on wealthy widow Lisolette Mueller (Jones). Instead, the couple begins falling in love.
Though Steve McQueen chose to play the fire chief because he felt it was the showier role, Paul Newman clearly emerges as the star. Newman plays a part in some of the film’s best action scenes and also carries on an interesting love story with a character played by Faye Dunaway. In contrast, while Steve McQueen does his share of heroic things, he also disappears for large chunks of time mid-film. Not to be completely overshadowed though, McQueen does have two unforgettable rescues that give him his turn in the spotlight. Other stars that make brief appearances include Robert Vaughn as an attention-seeking senator, O.J. Simpson as a security guard whose main claim to fame is rescuing a cat, and Robert Wagner who, as fate would have it, becomes the first of the stars to go down in flames.
The film’s 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio is faithfully replicated in 1080p using the AVC codec. Sharpness throughout is almost always exemplary. However, there are a few occasions where the foreground is in sharp focus but the background appears a bit blurry. Color is richly saturated and very appealing; the orange and red of the flames is vivid and fine detail of the partygoer’s evening dresses is highly visible. Faye Dunaway’s neckline-to-the-navel Dacron dress never looked so good. Flesh tones appear a bit on the pink side on occasion but for the most part look realistic and natural. Blacks aren’t the blackest you’ll ever see but their depth is good with excellent contrast. A thin sheen of grain makes for an impressive, film-like image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix relegates much of the surround sound to the audio’s front soundstage with the rears used mostly for John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score and an occasional ambient effect. There’s some light use of the LFE channel for bass but it can’t be considered the full kind of mix we’ve come to expect from newly released films. While The Towering Inferno wouldn’t be considered a reference quality mix, for a film that is 35-years old, Fox has once again done a solid job with a catalogue title.
The Towering Inferno offers an impressive slate of special features:
All features are presented in 480i.
• Three Audio Commentaries: The first, by film historian F.X. Feeney has him essentially telling viewers what’s happening on the screen. Most of the outside information he imparts can be found on one of the other features found on the disc. The other two audio commentaries are scene specific. Movie effects coordinator Mike Vezina selects eight moments from the film with impressive fire or water effects and essentially hypothesizes on how they might have been created. Stunt coordinator Branko Racki comments on nine stunts and gives his impressions. None of these are really must-here’s, unless you’re an audio commentary junkie.
• Inside the Tower: We Remember (8:15) Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, Susan Blakely and Susan Flannery discuss their experiences making the disaster epic.
• Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno (7:01) features interviews with various people responsible for the impressive special effects.
• The Art of Towering (5:15) production designer William Creber shows and explains production sketches and storyboards.
• Irwin Allen: The Great Producer (6:30) finds stars of both The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure showering Irwin Allen with praise.
• Directing the Inferno (4:30) discusses the part each director played in creating the final cut of the film.
• Putting Out Fire (5:00) features an interview with technical advisor Peter Lucarelli about the safety precautions used during the filming of the fire sequences.
• Running on Fire (6:00) is a discussion of the extensive stunt work. There is a discussion of how much of the stunt work was done by the stars themselves and how much was done by their stunt doubles.
• Still the World’s Tallest Building (8:30) architects from around the world discuss the tallest buildings in existence and compare it to the Glass Tower.
• The Writer: Stirling Silliphant (9:15) a brief, yet interesting biography of the screenwriter who also penned The Poseidon Adventure.
• AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno (22:00) this features 2002 interviews with most of the principal cast and crew still living. Richard Chamberlain makes it sound like The Towering Inferno was one of the most enjoyable experiences of his career and apparently there was real tension between William Holden and Faye Dunaway (and not in a good way).
• Deleted/Extended Scenes (44:45) there are thirty-three of these, which may be viewed individually or in one continuous role.
• Three articles from American Cinematographer magazine may be stepped through complete with illustrations and sidebar interviews: “The Towering Inferno and How It Was Filmed,” “Photographing the Dramatic Sequences for The Towering Inferno,” and “Action Unit Lives Up to Its Name While Shooting The Towering Inferno.”
• Five Stills Galleries includes shot composition, publicity, behind-the-scenes, concept sketches, and costume designs as the five areas of photos and drawings.
• Six Storyboard Comparisons which has action scenes from the movie shown in side-by-side windows.
• Vintage Promotion Material (21:00) there are two theatrical trailers for The Towering Inferno and one for The Poseidon Adventure, a NATO Presentation Reel that publicizes the upcoming blockbuster release a 1977 interview with producer Irwin Allen in which he answers nine pressing questions, and two 1974 featurettes on the movie showing behind-the-scenes shots and brief clips from some of the action sequences.
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