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John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner
Writing Credits:
Richard Martin Stern (novel, "The Tower"), Thomas N. Scortia (novel, "The Glass Inferno"), Frank M. Robinson (novel, "The Glass Inferno"), Stirling Silliphant

One Tiny Spark Becomes A Night Of Blazing Suspense.

The Glass Tower is touted as the world's tallest building, and its owners are holding a huge gala to celebrate its completion. But the building contractors used cheap wiring to cut corners, against the recommendations of architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), and a blaze starts in a janitor's closet. Soon the Glass Tower becomes The Towering Inferno as the fire quickly spreads upward, trapping the party guests. The firefighters can't fight the blaze fast enough and the fire chief (Steve McQueen) devises a daring and dangerous rescue, but not before a slew of spectacularly fiery deaths and heroics.

Box Office:
$14 million.
Domestic Gross
$116.000 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 4.0
English Dolby 2.0
Spanish Monaural

Runtime: 165 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/9/2006

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Film Historian FX Sweeney
• Scene-Specific Commentary By X3 Special Effects Director Mike Vezina
• Scene-Specific Commentary by The Day After Tomorrow Stunt Coordinator Branko Racki
Disc Two
• 33 Extended and Deleted Scenes
• “AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno” Documentary
• Nine New Featurettes
• NATO Presentation Reel
• Two Original 1974 Featurettes
• 1977 Irwin Allen Interview
• Trailers
• Three “American Cinematographer” Articles
• Five Galleries
• Storyboard Comparisons


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Towering Inferno: Special Edition (1974)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 4, 2006)

This may sound absurd, but The Towering Inferno had a profound effect on my life. I first saw the movie during its initial theatrical release in 1974, when I was but seven years old. At nearly three hours, this was a rather long movie, but I loved every minute of it and thoroughly embraced the "disaster movie" genre that became so popular.

I couldn't get enough of those films. Earthquake, Rollercoaster, The Swarm, The Hindenburg, even a terrible Japanese picture called Tidal Wave - I took in all of them. While I liked most of them, none of them quite equaled the impact of The Towering Inferno. To me, it remained the Holy Grail of disaster movies.

While it's hard to remember now, movies had much more of an allure to kids of my generation than they do now just because they were so much more unattainable. Home video existed but was very much in its infancy. The concept of purchasing or renting movies wouldn't become a practical reality until I reached my mid-teens in the early Eighties.

As such, if I wanted to see The Towering Inferno again, it was going to have to be on TV, and that occasion never seemed to occur when I was a kid. Since cable wasn't much of a factor, we had to rely on the broadcast networks, and it usually took them a lot longer to get movies than it does now. I was unable to find out through an Internet search exactly when Inferno hit the airwaves, but all I do know is that it was an interminable wait for this little kid. I was so enamored of it that I wanted to buy its soundtrack. I didn't want the music, but for some reason I was convinced it would include all of the film's dialogue.

Geez, my fascination with this film actually indirectly caused me to learn how to type! In third grade, we had an assignment to write a story that completed a tale about the Borrowers our teacher read to us. I decided to take them into the big city, where they'd live in a tower - an ill-fated tower, ultimately. I don't know what kind of grade I got on my story, because the project just kept on going. Ultimately, it was more than two years later that I actually finished the thing, and along the way I decided that it would make more sense if I could type it. My handwriting was - and remains - extremely poor and I dislike writing by hand. As such, due to my transcription and then extension of the story I called "Fire!" I learned the unexceptional but quite functional typing skills that serve me to this day.

Am I making my point clear? While Inferno hasn't been among my favorite films since the Seventies - once Star Wars hit, I pretty much forgot about it - I can't deny the substantial impact it had upon my life. That's essentially why I avoided watching it over the years.

You know what they say: you can't go home again. I haven't wanted to watch Inferno because I didn't want to ruin my memories. Actually, before its DVD release, I think I only saw it once since I was a kid. When I got my first laserdisc player in 1991, I rented it, and was quite disappointed to see how dull I thought it was. So much for that childhood myth.

And I didn't go back for years. When I did so, though, I got a pretty big kick out The Towering Inferno. This surprised me, but at least it was a pleasant surprise. More than 30 years burning down the road and it still works well. While I can't say that it captivates me the way it did when I was seven - and I still have no idea what Academy voters were thinking when they gave it one of the five Best Picture nominations for 1974 – it remains a class act and an entertaining film.

I can't deny that nostalgia may drive my enjoyment of Inferno to some degree. Just starting the DVD up gave me a bit of a charge as all those memories came rushing back at me. Still, nostalgia alone wouldn't have gotten me through 165 minutes of the movie if it didn't have something going for it.

The film's fabulous cast didn't hurt. It was fun to simply see all these folks massed together. You know you have a special group when Fred Astaire only gets fifth billing! No one does much in the way of terrific acting, but it really was enough that they just showed up and worked competently. The blaze leads the way, and everyone else just comes along for the ride.

Inferno is one of those "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" films because it doesn't stand up to dissection. As I noted, the acting is decent at best when one separates out the dazzling star power. Director John Guillermin moves things along at a workmanlike but slow pace. Two hours and forty-five minutes was simply too long for this movie, and it probably would have worked better if it lost 20 to 30 minutes. The story is rudimentary and the script simple, as it comes with extremely sketchy and one-dimensional characters.

But somehow the piece manages to be effective as a whole. Despite the horrendous logistics of introducing and establishing this giant cast, we learn enough about the characters to get a handle on things and we care about them in a basic way. No, I wasn't terribly emotionally invested in them - there were simply too many participants for us to ever get into any of them - but they weren't the nobodies of more modern disaster films like Volcano and Dante’s Peak. At least most of the personalities in Inferno offered a little spark.

Astonishingly, despite its bloated length, Inferno manages to offer quite a lot of suspense and tension. Do I have the slightest idea what it would be like to go through such an ordeal? Well, our house got hit by lightning and caught fire when I was twelve. As the only one home at the time, it freaked me out. Somehow that event doesn't seem to quite match up to the fright involved with being trapped on the 130th floor of a burning building, so no, I can't relate to the experience.

I thought that Inferno effectively delivered a sense of the terror and anxiety that would be involved in that sort of calamity. Much of the film depicts the kinds of quiet heroics we expect from this sort of movie, as it's effectively a love letter to fire fighters. Still, we do see a lot of panic and stupidity, and enough characters buy the farm that we're never quite sure who'll make it to the end. Even though I'd seen the movie, I still couldn't recall exactly who would survive. Yeah, it’s a given that some of the actors will endure, but with so many from which to choose, there's a good shot some who would survive in a smaller production won't last until the final reel here.

Does The Towering Inferno drag at times? Yes, but surprisingly infrequently. The story really kept me going for most of the film. Around the 100-minute mark I started to lose some interest, but events quickly picked up the pace and I was right back into the flow of things. It's not a fast-paced movie, especially by current standards, but it cranks along at a quick enough rate to keep the viewer interested.

One area in which the film excels is its special effects. Despite all of the progress made in this field over the last 30 years, these visuals hold up remarkably well. Yes, a modern production of this material would make the images much more dynamic, but these shots remain tremendously realistic and believable. One or two scenes seem somewhat artificial, but the nighttime setting does a good job of hiding most flaws. Kudos to the effects guys - their talents are much of the reason that Inferno continues to entertain and thrill after all this time.

In no way can I call The Towering Inferno a great piece of work. However, it remains a lot of fun and stands as probably the best of the disaster genre. Nostalgia or not, this is an entertaining flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus B+

The Towering Inferno appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not quite as attractive as the new transfer for The Poseidon Adventure, the anamorphic Inferno usually looked good.

Some mild concerns related to sharpness. Due to the presence of light edge enhancement at times, wider shots occasionally appeared a little ill-defined. These weren’t a major concern, but they could cause minor distractions. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and the print lacked substantial source flaws. A few specks and marks appeared, but not much to detract from the experience.

Colors were also quite nice. The various hues came across as lively and concise throughout the movie. I saw no concerns in that area, and blacks were also deep and firm. A few low-light shots could be a smidgen dark, but those stayed acceptably smooth for the most part. Though the transfer wasn’t the stunner I wanted to find, it nonetheless made Inferno look good.

Despite its age, I found the film's Dolby Digital 4.0 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 new 2006 special edition compare to those of the original 1999 DVD? I thought both offered fairly similar audio. Oddly, the 1999 disc included a Dolby Digital 5.1 track whereas this one went with a 4.0 mix. Few notable differences occurred between the pair, though I felt the 5.1 edition sounded a little better. It appeared to present a slightly more involving soundfield and mildly better defined bass. The variations weren’t enough to warrant a difference in my audio grade – both discs got a “B+” – but I did prefer the 5.1 mix.

On the other hand, the new transfer significantly improved on the old non-anamorphic one. Many areas were similar, as both exhibited strong colors, blacks, and print cleanliness. However, the 2006 edition presented much improved definition and stability. The old one suffered from a lot of softness as well as jaggies, shimmering, and a generally “digital” appearance that don’t mar the new one. This was a substantial step up in terms of transfer quality.

When I originally reviewed the 1999 platter, I wished for the release of a Towering Inferno special edition but I held out little hope that it would occur. Though it took seven years, I’m very happy to finally see this childhood favorite get the deluxe treatment. While the movie may not delight me as much as it did 30 years ago, the prospect of this set’s behind the scenes materials makes me pretty giddy anyway.

On DVD One, 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-3 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.

Over on DVD Two, the main attraction comes from the 33 Extended and Deleted Scenes. Taken together via the “Play All” option, these fill a total of 44 minutes and 40 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 DVD allows us to see them, but they will clearly disappoint fans who hope to find interesting shots.

A 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 DVD offers very good picture and audio along with a fairly nice set of extras.

Maybe it’s just the seven-year-old in me who likes this flick, but I still want to recommend it anyway. It offers a good movie and a fine DVD. That recommendation goes for anyone who already owns the original disc. This one provides comparable audio but boasts superior visuals and a greatly expanded roster of supplements. At a list price of less than $20, it’s a buy.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4545 Stars Number of Votes: 44
5 3:
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