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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.