The Towering Inferno appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though not a bad presentation, the transfer disappointed.
Most of the problems related to sharpness. I noticed light edge enhancement through the film, and this contributed to mild softness. Much of the flick displayed good clarity, but some elements – usually wide shots – suffered from a lack of great delineation and the intrusion of the haloes. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering materialized, though, and only a couple of minor defects appeared. The movie showed natural grain and was very clean 99.9 percent of the time.
Colors were generally good but they also had some problems. In particular, skin tones could be a little purple at times. Nonetheless, the majority of the hues seemed fine – if a little gaudy, given the palettes favored in the mid-70s. Blacks showed good depth and darkness, while shadows came across as clear and appropriately defined. While I thought the film was always watchable, the softness made it a disappointment.
Despite its age, I found the film's DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix to pack a surprisingly strong punch. The forward soundstage provided some nice stereo effects, with decently localized dialogue and some occasional effective panning. This was especially true in the later stages of the movie when we heard more helicopters, explosions and fire vehicles. The rears presented some good ambiance in the way of fire effects and music. The rear speakers didn't get much of a workout, but they added to the presentation in a satisfying manner.
Audio quality seemed more than acceptable for a movie from 1974. John Williams' score probably came across best, as the music offered pretty positive range and delineation. Speech lacked notable edginess and sounded reasonably distinctive and concise. Though louder effects suffered from a bit of distortion – particularly during the climax – those elements were usually accurate and relatively precise. High-end bits tended to be slightly harsh but not badly so, and bass was fairly deep. This was a very nice soundtrack for an older film.
How did the picture and audio of this Blu-ray compare to those of the 2007 Special Edition DVD? The audio seemed to be a wash. Even though the Blu-ray featured a 5.1 track versus the SE’s 4.0 mix, the end result was essentially the same. There’s only so much that could be done with the source material, and both tracks seemed good.
As for the visuals, my ratings may make it appear that the DVD outdid the Blu-ray; the latter got a “C+”, while the former earned a “B+”. Chalk that up to the different expectations with which I greet the two formats. DVD gets away with a lot more “sins”; softness stands out less, and other issues aren’t as apparent.
I believe that the Blu-ray and the DVD stemmed from the same transfer but the higher resolution of Blu-ray made the image’s flaws more obvious. In truth, the Blu-ray actually looked a bit better; at its best, it could be pretty good. The problems came from the lack of consistency. Overall, the Blu-ray offered superior visuals when compared to the DVD, but don’t expect substantial improvements.
All the same supplements from the DVD reappear here. We open with an audio commentary from film historian FX Feeney. He offers a running, screen-specific chat. Though he occasionally gets into some nuts and bolts issues, Feeney mostly discusses the story. He delves into themes, symbolism and characters much of the time. He devotes a fair amount of energy to the film’s color schemes as well as shot composition and other storytelling devices. Feeney also goes over the various relationships and how the characters bounce off of each other.
When he chats about the making of the flick, Feeney talks about the partnership between Fox and Warner, locations and set design, casting and related issues, the interaction between co-directors John Guillermin and Irwin Allen, stunts and various technical challenges. While Feeney makes this a reasonably interesting commentary, I must admit I wish he spent more time on the filmmaking topics and less on interpretation. I don’t feel that way because he fails to make good points; I just think that such a complicated production requires more detailed examination.
At least Feeney tosses out some good notes when he does go over the making of the flick. I especially like the parts that look at Steve McQueen’s jealousy toward Paul Newman and how that affected the film. Feeney occasionally muddles his facts; he provides at least two different release dates, and he also seems to think Mrs. Allbright’s kids are deaf but she can hear. Despite those periodic lapses, Feeney creates a reasonably interesting and informative track. It’s not a great commentary, but it’s worth a listen.
We also discover two separate scene-specific commentaries. The first comes from X-Men: The Last Stand special effects director Mike Vezina, as he chats for 12 minutes, 43 seconds. He talks about the various effects challenges on the flick with a particular emphasis on fire. Don’t expect a lot of detail here. Vezina tosses out minor insights about creating flames, but usually he just states the obvious; he comments “lotta fire here” more than once. Due to its brevity, this is a painless piece, but it’s not a useful one.
The second scene-specific piece presents The Day After Tomorrow stunt coordinator Branko Racki. He talks for 21 minutes and 33 seconds. Unsurprisingly, he looks at the stunt work. Racki chats about how the stuntmen deal with being set on fire and various safety measures. He also talks about working with non-stunt actors as well as a variety of secrets used to make the mayhem onscreen look real. Racki helps put the work in perspective and turns this into a helpful and informative discussion.
33 Extended and Deleted Scenes fill a total of 44 minutes and 58 seconds. A disclaimer indicates that these “were originally part of a longer television broadcast version of The Towering Inferno. Unfortunately, the elements for this version were not in good enough condition to present the full TV broadcast cut on this DVD release. In order to see the TV version footage in context with the theatrical release, we’ve placed black and white handles of the theatrical version before and after the extended TV footage.”
Because of those “handles”, we don’t get anywhere close to 44 minutes of new footage; I’d guess that this area offers at least 20 minutes of clips that already appear in the theatrical version, and the total may be higher. That still means we find lots of fresh material, though you shouldn’t expect any lost gold. Many offer nothing more than short trims, while we also find a few simple shots of fire engines.
Others seem redundant, especially since the “handles” aren’t always correct; some of the allegedly “new” bits already appear in the final flick. Only a couple provide anything mildly substantial. The best one shows Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) on the job and it gives us a little more insight into his work. Otherwise, these snippets add up to a whole lot of nothing. I’m glad the disc allows us to see them, but they will clearly disappoint fans who hope to find interesting shots.
An episode of AMC Backstory runs 22 minutes and eight seconds. Ir presents the standard melange of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We get modern remarks from production designer William Creber, costume designer Paul Zastupnevich, stuntman/actor Ernie Orsatti, director of photography Fred J. Koenekamp, and actors Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, and Sheila Allen. We also see Seventies-era comments from producer Irwin Allen.
“Backstory” looks at Allen’s prior success with Poseidon Adventure and how this led him to Inferno. We learn about the joint Fox/Warner production, the adaptation of two competing books into one script, set design, casting and issues among the actors. Finally, we go through shooting the fire sequences and stunts, miniatures and effects, filming the climax and the flick’s reception.
With only 22 minutes at its disposal, “Backstory” lacks much depth. Nonetheless, it manages to throw out a lot of good little nuggets. I like the parts about problems with the actors, and we also find lots of fun shots from the set. The program manages to create a decent overview of the production.
By the way, given that Inferno occasionally evokes memories of the World Trade Center attack, it seems chilling that production completed on September 11, 1974.
A whopping nine new featurettes follow. Inside the Tower: We Remember goes for eight minutes, 16 seconds, and includes comments from Blakely, production illustrator Joseph Musso, technical adviser Peter Lucarelli, and actors Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, and Susan Flannery. They chat about shooting the film and the atmosphere on the set. We get impressions of the flick’s big names and discover a nice feel for the production. This is a pretty fluffy little piece, but it gives us a decent set of memories about the flick.
During the six-minute and 55-second Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno, we hear from Vezina, Koenekamp, Irwin Allen, Musso, and Flannery. The show investigates complications related to filming fire, miniatures and composite shots, planning and storyboards, and various camera tricks.
Given the scope of Inferno, a featurette that runs less than seven minutes seems insufficient. It runs through its topics very quickly and doesn’t dig into them with great detail. This show feels like an appetizer and needs more specific information.
For The Art of Towering, we find five minutes and 18 seconds of remarks from Musso as well as production illustrators Nikita Knatz and Dan Goozee. As implied by the title, this short examines concept illustrations created for the film. We see examples of this work and learn how their art influenced the production. They relate this to inspirations from the books on which the movie was based as well as coordinating their plans with the actual shoot. This ends up as a nice synopsis of the elements along with fun information about various tricks.
A look at the disaster impresario comes with Irwin Allen: The Great Producer. This six-minute and 26-second show involves Koenekamp, Blakely, Chamberlain, Vaughn, Musso, Knatz, Lucarelli, Flannery, Orsatti, Goozee, and Poseidon Adventure actor Carol Lynley, Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall. The participants look at Allen’s career, his flicks, and his personal style. Inevitably, some fluff emerges, but the speakers manage to give us a lively view of Allen as a master showman. We get irreverent notes about Allen’s funky hairdo and his love of Jack in the Box fast food. Though we can’t see this anecdotal piece as a true biography of the producer, it acts as a fun way to give us an impression of Allen.
Information about John Guillermin pops up in the four-minute and 28-second Directing the Inferno. It includes remarks from Flannery, Blakely, Koenekamp, Vaughn, Musso, and Chamberlain. We find out that the studio forced Irwin Allen to take on a co-director and how they split and coordinated their duties. We hear about Guillermin’s personality and how he worked on the set. The anecdotes prove winning in this brief but interesting program.
Putting Out Fire fills four minutes, 58 seconds. It features Irwin Allen, Koenekamp, Lucarelli, and Flannery. The show covers the use of real firefighters to make sure the staged blazes didn’t get out of control. We also find a little info about attempts to make matters realistic, Steve McQueen’s research for his role, and cinematography. I like this minor look at how the production used actual firefighters and kept things true to life.
Running On Fire goes for five minutes, 52 seconds. It presents notes from Chamberlain, Vaughn, Lucarelli, Orsatti, and stuntpeople Lightning Bear and Jeannie Epper. “Running” looks at stunts in the flick. We learn how much of the work the actors did and when they needed to use stuntpeople. The piece examines challenges related to the impact of both fire and water as well as nuts and bolts of safety. It’s good to hear from some actual stuntpeople here, as they provide nice insight into their work.
In the eight-minute and 23-second Still the World’s Tallest Building, we hear from architect Roger Chikhani. It looks at historical development of skyscrapers. “Tallest” also details real-life buildings and compares them to the movie’s Glass Tower. The show provides an interesting take on skyscrapers.
For the final featurette, we get The Writer: Stirling Sillphant. The nine-minute and 16-second show involves Stevens, Goozee, Musso, Knatz, former agent Don Kopaloff, author David Morrell, author/story consultant Christopher Vogler, and filmmaker Charles Matthau.
The program gets into Silliphant’s hyperactive work schedule as well as highlights of his career, his relationship with Irwin Allen and his adaptations, and his general demeanor and personality. While not a true overview, “Writer” touches on enough elements of Silliphant’s career to be valuable. I especially liked the look at Steve McQueen’s rewrite demands. (Note that this is the same featurette that also appears on the Poseidon Adventure special edition.)
Under the banner of “Vintage Promotional Material”, we get a mix of pieces. The NATO Presentation Reel fills 11 minutes and seven seconds. Created to excite theater owners – the “NATO” in question – about Inferno, the show reminds us of Poseidon Adventure’s success and proclaims how great the next flick will be. Irwin Allen leads us through his production studio and does his best to hype his new effort. Where else will you see a filmed Allen applaud his real self? He indulges his cheesy showman side here, and that makes this a fun archival piece.
Two Original 1974 Featurettes come next. The first lasts eight minutes, 16 seconds, while the second runs seven minutes, 21 seconds. Both look at various production logistics, though they do so in slightly different ways. The first just features movie clips and footage from the set, while the second adds a few cast and crew comments. That one also focuses on the movie’s climactic scene. The abundance of behind the scenes material makes these better than expected, and it’s also nice to hear a little from Fred Astaire.
A 1977 Irwin Allen Interview takes up 12 minutes and 26 seconds. The producer discusses a mix of issues connected to Inferno and Allen’s career in general. He goes through the development of the project as well as various production issues. Allen also relates why he thinks audiences like disaster movies so much and what rewards he gets from his flicks. We see some of these snippets elsewhere, but plenty of unique material emerges in this informative session.
In the Trailers area, we get three ads. We find both the teaser and theatrical promos for Inferno along with a trailer for The Poseidon Adventure. None of them are particularly good, especially since they reveal too many story turns.
Three American Cinematographer Articles appear next. We find “The Towering Inferno And How It Was Filmed” by Charles Loring (23 pages), “Photographing the Dramatic Sequences for The Towering Inferno” by Bob Fisher (26 pages), and “’Action Unit’ Lives Up to Its Name While Shooting The Towering Inferno” by David Hammond (34 pages). The Loring article takes a general look at the production and seems awfully fluffy. It touches on a mix of issues but feels like little more than promotion for the most part.
Fisher’s piece focuses on director of photography Fred Koenekamp and his work. It also gets into sets and the like, but it mostly sticks with Koenekamp’s decisions. It’s a solid technical take, even if it does get the names of the source novels wrong. Finally, the Hammond article looks at Action Unit director of photography Joe Biroc and the challenges he addressed. That one acts as a good complement to the composition about Koenekamp; together the two cover a lot of photographic subjects related to the film.
Five Galleries offer a mix of stills. We locate “Shot Compositions” (28 images), “Publicity” (46), “Behind the Scenes” (66), “Conceptual Sketches” (58) and “Costumes” (22). Some very nice materials appear here and make this collection much better than usual. Unfortunately, the shots seem awfully small most of the time, and that particularly harms the detailed sketches. Nonetheless, I think we get a lot of great stuff here.
Finally, we find six Storyboard Comparisons. These come for “Fallen Stairwell” (two minutes, 35 seconds), “Helicopter Crash” (1:11), “Elevator Shaft” (2:20), “Scenic Elevator” (1:59), “Buoy Chair” (1:54), and “Water Tank Explosion” (3:08). Rather than use the standard split-screen technique, this area shows movie scenes and alternates them with drawings. This method doesn’t work very well. I like the material we see but don’t care for the form of presentation very much.
Because my reaction to The Towering Inferno is so strongly tied to my own personal experiences, that makes it somewhat hard for me to make a clear recommendation. Despite my bias, however, I think the movie's exciting and tense and delivers pretty much everything one could want from this sort of film. The Blu-ray offers very good audio along and a fairly nice set of extras but picture quality seems erratic.
That means the Blu-ray doesn’t provide a great upgrade over the 2007 SE DVD. Sure, it looks a little better, but it doesn’t blow away its predecessor. If you don’t own any Inferno release, go with the Blu-ray, but I don’t think it’s worth the money as an “upgrade”.
To rate this film visit the Special Edition review of THE TOWERING INFERNO