The Towering Inferno (Blu-ray)
Directed by John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 165 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 4.0, 3.0 English, 1.0 Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 34.98
Release Date: July 14, 2009
Review Date: July 22, 2009
The apex of the disaster movie craze of the 1970s was reached with John Guillermin and Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno. Bigger, grander, and more elaborate than any of the similar fare which preceded it, The Towering Inferno towered at the box-office, too. Critic Judith Crist called these “movie-movies”: films that featured a sterling roster of stars, a grandiose production, and enough melodrama to keep the plot always simmering with never a letdown. The Towering Inferno runs for 165 minutes, but it’s seldom dull: there’s always something happening to give the customer his money’s worth.
On the day of its grand opening presided over by its architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) and its building contractor Jim Duncan (William Holden), the world's tallest building, the 135-story The Glass Tower adorning the skyline of San Francisco falls victim to an electrical mishap in a fuse box and a subsequent huge fire on its upper floors causing all of the city's rescue teams coordinated through the efforts of Fire Chief O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) to converge upon the scene and attempt to fight against what is a raging, out of control monster.
Oscar-winner Stirling Silliphant combined plots from two novels (The Tower and The Glass Inferno) to come up with the story for this epic disaster drama. Having to manipulate a handful of stars in the mix, however, necessitated his inventing an equal number of set piece moments of derring-do for his two top-billed stars as well as signature moments for all of the recognizable star cast. It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s logical that two directors were used to get such a monumental picture finished and in theaters in about six months. John Guillermin handled the dialogue scenes and got great work especially from two supporting players, Fred Astaire as a down-on-his-luck con man and Jennifer Jones as his next target. There are also some worthy moments featuring Richard Chamberlain’s scheming electrical engineer though the role is shortchanged with the necessity to return to the central disaster of the picture. Producer Irwin Allen directed the action scenes, and there are several that bring to mind moments in his previous disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure including rescues from the side of the building and in stairwells that contain only a snaky twist of pipe on which to climb. The film’s size and scope are impressive, and the action never flags even though one gets the feeling that there is still too much of a good thing.
Paul Newman clearly emerges as the star of the movie figuring in not only many of the film’s best action moments but also carrying a love story, however tentative due to the continual requirement to return to the fire, with Faye Dunaway. William Holden also has some excellent dramatic moments as the hard-headed businessman whose lack of concern over the fire’s imminent danger inevitably leads to everyone’s peril. Top-billed Steve McQueen as the nonplussed fire chief disappears for a great chunk of time during the middle of the film, but Silliphant remedies that with two back-to-back rescue stunts for the star which give him climactic moments in the spotlight. Other stars who are merely blips on the radar include Robert Vaughn as an attention-seeking senator, O.J. Simpson as a security guard who’s 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 (though the depth of field seems especially narrow with the film; objects even slightly in the foreground are often blurry though the stars are always in sharp focus), and color is richly saturated and very appealing. Occasional flesh tones appear a bit on the pink side but for the most part look realistic and quite natural. Blacks aren’t the blackest you’ll ever see, but their depth is usually fine with excellent contrast making for an impressive, film-like image. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix can’t compare to the action film audio tracks of today’s big effects extravaganzas with much of the surround activity relegated 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 again, the age and quality of the sound elements don’t (and can't) generate an effectively modern sound mix.
The disc includes three commentary tracks though none are ideal. The running commentary is provided by movie historian F. X. Feeney who spends much of the movie describing what we’re watching on-screen. What information he does impart can also be found in the rich set of bonus supplements elsewhere on the disc. The other two commentaries are scene specific ones delivered by two men currently working in the business on various Fox features. Movie effects coordinator Mike Vezina selects eight moments from the film with impressive fire or water effects but basically guesses at how they might have been accomplished while describing what we’re seeing on-screen. Better is the scene specific comments of stunt coordinator Branko Racki who picks nine stunt-heavy scenes to describe his impressions of the difficulty and suggesting how each might have been accomplished.
All of the bonus featurettes are presented in 480i.
“Inside the Tower: We Remember” is an 8 ¼-minute reminiscence featuring co-stars Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, and Susan Flannery speaking about their experiences making the movie.
“Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno” features interviews with the special effects coordinator and others associated with the film’s effects work in a 7-minute featurette.
“The Art of Towering” has the movie’s production designer showing production sketches and storyboards for the film in a 5 ¼-minute segment.
“Irwin Allen: The Great Producer” is a 6 ½-minute tribute to the movie’s producer with stars from both The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure showering him with praise.
“Directing the Inferno” discusses the extent of each of the two directors’ input on the final product. Basically Allen directed 45% of the film while Guillermin directed the remaining 55%. The featurette lasts 4 ½ minutes.
“Putting Out Fire” features an interview with technical advisor Peter Lucarelli about the safety precautions used during the filming of the fire sequences. This runs for 5 minutes.
“Running on Fire” is a 6-minute discussion of the various stunt work accomplished in the film and how much stunt work was done by the stars themselves and how much done with their stunt doubles.
“Still the World’s Tallest Building” spends 8 ½ minutes with architects from around the world talking about the tallest real structures in existence and comparing it to The Glass Tower in the movie.
“The Writer: Stirling Silliphant” offers a mini-biography on the life and career of the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter. It runs for 9 ¼ minutes.
AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno is another in the series of well done documentaries filmed for the American Movie Classics channel offering 22 minutes of background and interviews with the principal personnel behind the film.
There are thirty-three deleted/extended scenes which may be viewed individually or in one 44 ¾ minute grouping.
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.”
There are five step through galleries with shot composition, publicity, behind-the-scenes, concept sketches, and costume designs as the five areas of photos and drawings.
There are six storyboard comparisons with action scenes from the movie shown in side-by-side windows.
In the area of Vintage Promotion of the movie, there are two theatrical trailers for The Towering Inferno and one for The Poseidon Adventure, a NATO Presentation Reel (11 minutes) that trumpets 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.
4/5 (not an average)
Winner of three Academy Awards (for cinematography, editing, and song, but not for visual effects; Earthquake won that year), The Towering Inferno is a too long but nevertheless satisfying action picture of the old school. A star-heavy cast and a large scale production is beautifully represented by this new Blu-ray release. Recommended!