Blu-ray: Recommended
4 Stars out of 5
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3rd Pary $7.97
Release Date: July 14th, 2009
Movie Release Year: 1974
Release Country: United States
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The Towering Inferno

Review Date November 3rd, 2009 by
Overview - One tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense in director Irwin Allen’s (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) three-time Oscar winning* masterpiece of suspense, The Towering Inferno, debuting July 14 on BD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. There’s no way out and no way down for Steve McQueen (The Magnificent Seven), Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), William Holden (Sunset Blvd.), Fred Astaire (Daddy Long Legs), Richard Chamberlain (“The Thorne Birds”), Robert Wagner (Austin Powers) and Faye Dunaway (Mommy Dearest), trapped on the 129th floor of the world’s tallest building when the opening night gala turns into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. A spectacular disaster epic that defined the genre, The Towering Inferno shocked audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and dizzying scale, garnering 10 Oscar nominations at the 1975 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
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  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs: Blu-ray,BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
    Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:165
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):2.35:1
    English Descriptive Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround,English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround,English 2.0 Dolby Surround,Spanish Mono 1.0
    Subtitles/Captions: English SDH,Spanish Subtitles,French Subtitles

Story Review Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

4 Stars out of 5

If you think the 1970s was the golden age of disaster flicks, think again. The original catastrophe craze began way back in the 1930s when Hollywood depicted everything from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius ('The Last Days of Pompeii') and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake ('San Francisco') to typhoons ('The Rains Came'), hurricanes ('The Hurricane'), sandstorms ('Suez'), and the great Chicago fire of 1871 ('In Old Chicago'). The impressive productions raked in millions, but lacked the deliciously cheesy spin producer Irwin Allen and his cronies put on the genre during its glorious '70s renaissance. Top-name talent and a host of Hollywood has-beens eagerly lined up to imperil themselves in, among other things, an upside-down luxury liner, a jumbo jet piloted by a stewardess, or, in the case of 'The Towering Inferno,' a shoddily-constructed burning skyscraper. As a hopeless disaster junkie, I've always been entertained by these overblown, overacted, and overcooked epics, no matter how bad the script, how preposterous the situation, or how moronic the characters. There's just something about watching panic-stricken extras running amok as Mother Nature wreaks havoc that tickles my fancy.

While most '70s disaster films are, in a word, disastrous, Allen's first two attempts remain a substantial cut above their campy (or should I say campier) partners in calamity. 'The Poseidon Adventure' will always remain my personal favorite, but 'The Towering Inferno' ranks a close second, and it's clear Allen upped the ante with regard to star power, production values, and sheer scope as he mounted this ambitious epic. Though Stirling Silliphant's idiotic screenplay tries its best to sabotage the enterprise, nothing can upstage the raging fire, which gobbles up a surprising number of characters as it ravages a spanking new, state-of-the-art high-rise during its opening night gala. Those who don't succumb to the flames shriek, whimper, cough, and wheeze as they navigate crumbling, smoke-filled stairwells and try to claw their way to safety – all, of course, while wearing chic designer duds.

Though there's plenty of heroism, spunk, and stupidity on display, 'The Towering Inferno' really doesn't have much plot. The fire itself is a direct result of covert cost-cutting by greedy, egotistical construction magnates, who make sure the skyscraper meets only the most minimal building code requirements – much to the chagrin of duped architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), who believes such a mammoth structure demands higher standards and greater safety measures. The builder (William Holden) and his snotty son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) scoff at such claims, but sure enough, when the cheap wiring can't handle the heavy electrical load during the gala, sparks literally fly. Efforts to contain the blaze fail, and as San Francisco's social elite obliviously whoop it up in the rooftop ballroom, the fire spreads below, eventually cutting off all avenues of escape. What follows is an elongated rescue mission, with some tangled relationships, a few deceptions, lots of barking and bickering, and a bit of illicit romance thrown into the mix for good measure. And instead of characters, we get a motley array of stiff cardboard cutouts who robotically perform designated functions while exuding as much Hollywood glamour as their megawatt star power can churn out.

In addition to Newman's architect and Holden's executive, there's The Fire Chief (Steve McQueen), The Girlfriend (Faye Dunaway), The Con Man (Fred Astaire, who somehow nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his charming yet innocuous portrayal), The Wife (Susan Blakely), The Widow (Jennifer Jones), The Security Man (O.J. Simpson), The Senator (Robert Vaughn), and The Publicity Man (Robert Wagner). Predicting who will live and who will die (and how they will die and what boneheaded decision will facilitate their demise) is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this type of potboiler, and 'The Towering Inferno' provides lots of fodder to – pardon the pun – fuel the fire. Though most of the deaths are predictable, a few catch us off guard, heightening suspense and adding a capricious tinge to the tale.

The beleaguered McQueen and outraged Newman make a terrific team, wisely underplaying so their dialogue sounds less ridiculous, and their modest heroism and natural machismo nicely ground this massive production. Astaire is customarily classy, while an uncomfortable Jones joins Helen Hayes ('Airport'), Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy ('Airport 1975'), Ava Gardner ('Earthquake'), and Olivia de Havilland ('Airport '77') as the de rigueur Golden Age diva who strives to maintain a modicum of dignity while gamely dirtying herself up. The rest of the actors, however – especially Chamberlain – fall all-too-willingly into the ham trap the screenplay sets for them, yet all the overblown histrionics only add to the film's substantial fun quotient.

'The Towering Inferno' garnered eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Though in retrospect such acclaim seems generous, there's no denying this is one impressive production, and it holds up surprisingly well 35 years later. Some special effects look a bit chintzy by today's standards, but all in all, the fire and rescue sequences pack a solid punch, supplying plenty of thrills, tension, and eye-filling spectacle. And for a 165-minute film, 'The Towering Inferno' is pretty darn tight. Director John Guillermin (who received considerable assistance from producer Irwin Allen, who directed all the action scenes) keeps things moving at a steady clip. Sure, a few minutes here and there could be shaved – some of the rescues try our patience – but Guillermin (who also directed such dreck as 'Shaft in Africa' and the 1976 'King Kong') deftly juggles the various subplots without neglecting the film's true star – the fire.

Dubbing 'The Towering Inferno' the crowning achievement of '70s disaster could be interpreted as a backhand compliment, but this all-star epic of chaos, destruction, and death never ceases to entertain, and remains a durable tribute to the vision and tenacity of the "master of disaster" himself, Irwin Allen. Though he would lose his Midas touch in the years that followed, Allen will be forever credited with defining the modern Hollywood blockbuster. That may be a dubious distinction, too, but cinematic art was never something Allen really wanted to produce. To him, it was the show that mattered, and whether you revel in it or ridicule it, there's no denying that 'The Towering Inferno' is one colossal show.

  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs:
    Blu-ray,BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
    Video Resolution/Codec:
    1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:165
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):
    2.35:1
    Audio Formats:
    English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround,English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround,English 2.0 Dolby Surround,Spanish Mono 1.0
    Subtitles/Captions:
    English SDH,Spanish Subtitles,French Subtitles

Video Review

4.5 Stars out of 5

With all its pyrotechnics, action, and glamour, 'The Towering Inferno' demands a top-flight transfer, and Fox delivers with a superior 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort that makes this 35-year-old film look almost brand new. From the opening titles onward, the picture's consistent clarity, excellent depth, fine color timing, and surprising dimensionality often blew me away, allowing full immersion in the fiery drama. Irwin Allen's epic will never escape its '70s roots (the frightening décor and gaudy costumes alone will keep it mired there forever), but it's impossible to imagine this dynamic disaster flick looking any better than it does here.

A few errant specks and nicks dot the print, but the source material often looks pristine, with just a light coating of grain lending the image a marvelous film-like feel. Facial features shine during close-ups (the wrinkles on Astaire, Jones, and Holden are wonderfully defined), and fabrics, such as iconic '70s suede, possess good texture. With all the thick smoke and blinding flames, it's tough to achieve consistent contrast, but the transfer does a good job juggling well-lit interiors, dark exteriors, and smoke-filled rooms in a balanced manner without sacrificing vibrancy. Black levels, from the gentlemen's tuxedos to the Frisco night sky, remain inky and dense throughout, and fine details such as sweat and soot show up well.

Mild, age-related fading afflicts some of the hues, but the overall quality of color is quite striking, right down to the sickly olive green carpeting and garish orange file cabinets – cringe-inducing reminders of the decade's outlandish style sense. Though the deep azure sky early in the film looks artificially enhanced, Newman's baby blues appear natural, while the bright yellows of taxi cabs and bold reds of fire engines punch up the picture. Fleshtones appear a bit ruddy, even before the fire's heat takes its toll, but the flames crisply dance about, flaunting distinct shades of red, yellow, and orange.

Fox keeps digital enhancements to a minimum, and no banding or posturization breaks up the solid image. This is really a great effort for a '70s film, and one that will delight fans of the disaster genre.

Audio Review

4 Stars out of 5

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track does wonders with the film's original sonic elements, at times making 'The Towering Inferno' sound like a modern day movie. Unfortunately, the enhancements only go so far, and can't completely disguise the production's '70s origins. Though some distinct surround effects emanate from the rears, most notably with sirens and fire engines, the bulk of the audio is anchored up front. Stereo separation is mild at best, but no noticeable imperfections, such as crackles and pops, mar the track. (Such sounds do exist, but they're always related to the raging flames.) The myriad explosions that occur throughout the film often exhibit mild distortion, and the subwoofer never quite complements the fire's roaring power to the degree it should. Bass frequencies are far from anemic, though; they need just a bit more oomph, so we really feel the inferno as well as see it.

All that said, details are surprisingly crisp, despite a cacophony of competing effects, such as wind and the whirring blades of rescue helicopters. Depending on the action that's transpiring, dialogue sometimes gets drowned out, but most exchanges are clear and comprehendible. The music score by John Williams – who was somewhat of a disaster movie specialist (he also composed scores for 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'Earthquake') – enjoys excellent presence and tonal depth, even if it never wraps around us like it should.

All in all, this is a satisfactory track that gets the most out of what it has to work with, and as a result, fans should be pleased.

Special Features

4.5 Stars out of 5

Fans also will be pleased with the massive supplemental package that dissects the film from almost every angle imaginable. All the extras from the 2006 special edition DVD have been transferred to this Blu-ray package, and the dizzying array of featurettes, galleries, and vintage material will keep aficionados occupied for hours.

  • Audio Commentaries – One full-length and two fractured commentaries examine different aspects of 'The Towering Inferno.' Film historian F.X. Feeney is never at a loss for words during his generalized commentary, which looks at production challenges, narrative structure, and the interaction of the all-star cast. He also analyzes (or over-analyzes) the characters, often reading a bit too much into their motivations and ballooning the emotional significance of various scenes. (Memo to Mr. Feeney: This is 'The Towering Inferno,' not 'A Streetcar Named Desire.') A few more behind-the-scenes anecdotes would have enlivened this dry but never dull discussion, which most likely will appeal only to the film's long-standing fans. Mike Vézina, special effects director on 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' provides negligible comments on eight selected action sequences, totaling close to 13 minutes, while the perspective of Branko Racki, Montreal stunt coordinator on 'The Day After Tomorrow,' is much more worthwhile. Racki discusses nine pivotal scenes from both a stunt and special effects vantage point, providing fascinating insights on technique, safety, and equipment. His remarks total 21 minutes.
  • Extended/Deleted Scenes (SD, 45 minutes) – Imagine the length of 'The Towering Inferno' if all 33 (that's right, thirty-three) extended/deleted scenes were incorporated into the final cut! Amazingly, though, there's not a whole lot of fresh material in this massive compendium, just a smattering of odd snippets tacked on to existing footage. A couple of full-length scenes are included, the most notable of which features Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery.
  • Featurette: "Inside the Tower: We Remember" (SD, 8 minutes) – Actors Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, and Susan Flannery share some colorful anecdotes about the production and the legendary stars with whom they interacted in this nostalgic 2005 featurette.
  • Featurette: "Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno" (SD, 7 minutes) – Archival comments from producer Irwin Allen highlight this absorbing examination of the film's "old-fashioned" special effects.
  • Featurette: "The Art of Towering" (SD, 5 minutes) – Various production aspects are explored here, from shooting techniques to collaborations to action choreography. Allen's artistic team lauds the producer and shows off some of their conceptual sketches that helped shape the film's design.
  • Featurette: "Irwin Allen: The Great Producer" (SD, 6 minutes) – This all-too-brief piece honors the "irrepressible exuberance" and inimitable hairdo of producer Allen. Blakely calls him a "character from a different time," while actress Stella Stevens ('The Poseidon Adventure') lovingly terms him "the cheapest man in the world." Both agree he was the consummate showman, as do the others who share their fond memories of this larger-than-life figure.
  • Featurette: "Directing the Inferno" (SD, 4 minutes) – The unsung, pipe-smoking hero of 'The Towering Inferno,' director John Guillermin, gets his due here, and those that worked with him found his calm, quiet demeanor a refreshing change from Allen's manic energy.
  • Featurette: "Putting Out Fire" (SD, 5 minutes) – The film's technical advisor dominates this interesting look at the contributions of the Los Angeles Fire Department during shooting, and how the organization aided McQueen in his preparation for his firefighting role.
  • Featurette: "Running on Fire" (SD, 6 minutes) – In this interesting featurette, the stunt men and women of 'The Towering Inferno' describe their dangerous tasks, preparation, and how they protected themselves from getting burned during the film's fire sequences.
  • Featurette: "Still the World's Tallest Building" (SD, 8 minutes) – The evolution of the skyscraper and what the structure symbolizes are examined in this stiff, bland piece. The featurette also compares the building in 'The Towering Inferno' to such real-life skyscrapers as Chicago's Sears Tower and (at that time) the world's tallest building in Taipei.
  • Featurette: "The Writer: Stirling Silliphant" (SD, 9 minutes) – The Oscar-winning scribe of 'In the Heat of the Night' is saluted by those who worked with him. A "compulsive, committed writer," Silliphant adapted two novels to form 'The Towering Inferno' screenplay, and also contributed scripts for such Irwin Allen productions as 'The Poseidon Adventure,' 'The Swarm,' and 'When Time Ran Out.'
  • Featurette: "AMC Backstory: 'The Towering Inferno'" (SD, 22 minutes) – This slick 2001 featurette incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes clips and reminiscences from Blakely and Robert Wagner as it chronicles the film's production. The friendly competition between Newman and McQueen, the "burning ambition" of producer Allen, and Dunaway's serial tardiness are examined, as well as Holden's dissatisfaction with his role, the intricacies of many of the action scenes, and how the film became the first joint venture of two studios (Fox and Warner) in Hollywood history.
  • Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons (HD, 13 minutes) – Six of the most impressive action sequences are intercut with various storyboard sketches that come quite close to duplicating the on-screen drama.
  • Vintage Featurette: "NATO Presentation Reel" (SD, 11 minutes) – No, this corny insider's look at Irwin Allen's production bungalow on the Fox lot was not a presentation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but rather the National Association of Theater Owners. The gregarious showman (dressed in a pink leisure suit!) hams it up for the cameras as he revels in the success of 'The Poseidon Adventure,' promotes 'The Towering Inferno,' and hypes several other blockbuster productions that ultimately never got made. Vintage clips of Allen on the 'Poseidon' set are a highlight of this gimmicky yet entertaining piece.
  • Original 1974 Featurette #1 (SD, 8 minutes) – Wall-to-wall on-set footage provides an up-close perspective on the intricacies of filming 'The Towering Inferno.' This promotional featurette is a cut above others in its class, and well worth checking out.
  • Original 1974 Featurette #2 (SD, 7 minutes) – Ditto this similarly well-made effort, which largely focuses on the climactic water tank explosion sequence. Astaire comments on the scene's inherent dangers, and McQueen's wife, Ali MacGraw, can be briefly glimpsed at the conclusion of this piece.
  • Irwin Allen 1977 Interview (SD, 12 minutes) – Divided into eight parts, this interesting chat with the legendary producer touches upon, among other things, the genesis of the project, how Allen assembled his team, working with fire, and safety concerns.
  • Interactive Galleries – Three informative articles from American Cinematographer magazine chronicle the film's shooting: "'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.'"
  • Still Galleries (HD) – An abundance of photos and sketches cover many production aspects. Divided into five sections, the gallery includes Shot Compositions (28 color sketches), Publicity (41 images, including an amusing cast caricature, the complete promotional pressbook, and poster art), Behind-the-Scenes (72 images of cast and crew in color and black-and-white), Conceptual Sketches (58 beautifully detailed color drawings), and Costumes (20 color sketches).
  • Theatrical Trailers (SD, 7 minutes) – The disc includes the original theatrical trailer for 'The Towering Inferno,' as well as a teaser trailer, and a preview for 'The Poseidon Adventure.'

Final Thoughts

'The Towering Inferno' blazes onto Blu-ray with all of its scorching action sequences, clichéd drama, and hammy performances intact. Irwin Allen's disaster epic may not be a work of cinematic art, but it’s a humdinger of an entertaining film, and this stellar Blu-ray release offers up superior video and audio transfers, and a 10-alarm collection of extras. Fans of '70s disaster epics will be thrilled with this high-quality disc, and those who haven't yet experienced this campy, all-star genre shouldn't hesitate to jump into the fray. Recommended.

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  • TECH SPECS & RELEASE DETAILS
    Technical Specs:
    Blu-ray,BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
    Video Resolution/Codec:
    1080p/AVC MPEG-4
    Length:165
    Release Country:United States
    Aspect Ratio(s):
    2.35:1
    Audio Formats:
    English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround,English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround,English 2.0 Dolby Surround,Spanish Mono 1.0
    Subtitles/Captions:
    English SDH,Spanish Subtitles,French Subtitles
    Special Features:
    Audio Commentaries
    Extended/Deleted Scenes
    Featurettes
    Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons
    Articles from American Cinematographer
    Still Galleries
    Theatrical Trailers

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