Inside Pulse DVD Review – The Towering Inferno: Special Edition

DVD available at


John Guillermin


Steve McQueen……….Chief Michael O’Hallorhan
Paul Newman……….Doug Roberts
William Holden……….James Duncan
Faye Dunaway……….Susan Franklin
Fred Astaire……….Harlee Claiborne
Susan Blakely……….Patty Simmons
Richard Chamberlain……….Roger Simmons
Jennifer Jones……….Lisolette Mueller
O.J. Simpson……….Harry Jernigan
Robert Vaughn……….Sen. Gary Parker
Robert Wagner……….Dan Bigelow
Susan Flannery……….Lorrie

Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. present Irwin Allen’s production of The Towering Inferno. Written by Stirling Silliphant. Based on the novels “The Tower” by Richard Martin Stern and “The Glass Inferno” by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Running time: 164 minutes. Rated PG. Released on DVD: May 9, 2006.

The movie:

Irwin Allen is proof that lightning does indeed strike twice. As a producer his finger was on the pulse on the entertainment community. While others were making smaller, independent films, Allen favored overindulgence. He struck oil when he bought the movie rights to a book called The Poseidon Adventure, and turned it into a gargantuan movie-watching experience. The flick was a huge hit, both critically and commercially; and the movie earned an astounding eight Oscar nomination. Regrettably, its only win was for Best Song.

Two years later, Allen had another big picture in mind. He wanted to bring Richard Martin Stern’s novel, The Tower, to the big screen. The book was such a hot property Allen couldn’t buy the rights. It was Warner Bros. who won the bidding war. Not wanting to be bested, Allen discovered a novel called The Glass Inferno. Purchasing the rights for 400,000 dollars, Twentieth Century Fox had its own “hot property”.

In a surprising turn of events, the producer showed his chutzpah when he went to the heads at Warner Bros. and told them production had already started on The Glass Inferno. With the possibility of Allen’s movie gracing theater screens earlier than The Tower, Warner Bros. was convinced that collaboration was in order.

Two books. One movie.

Both Fox and Warner Bros. would divide production costs and share resources on the project. The catch: Fox would get the U.S. box office gross; Warner would get the receipts from the rest of the world.

Who better than Stirling Silliphant to combine both novels and create a single screenplay? Having worked with Allen on The Poseidon Adventure, Silliphant relished the opportunity. He being the crafty wordsmith only had to follow one instruction: Turn these two novels into one thick screenplay. The result is disaster movie history.

Much like the seagoing disaster epic, Allen stuck with a similar outline. Take a bunch of recognizable Hollywood stars and put them in a situation where death and danger can happen in the blink of an eye. Throw in some human drama to make the audience care. Kill off a few characters at the off chance the action gets sparse.

The Towering Inferno falls into a select category of movies that were able to work with the formula and create one of the better disaster pictures of the seventies. Allen followed the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach to filmmaking. Whereas Poseidon was about people trying to escape a capsized ocean vessel, Inferno had people trying to escape “The Glass Tower”, an 1800-foot edifice. Simple enough. The story, that is. Not the escape.

Nobody sees a disaster flick for the acting; they want to suspend belief for a couple of hours and enjoy some action-packed excitement. And Irwin Allen spared no expense. A 14-million dollar budget, thousands of feet of film stock, and two of the biggest box office draws, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman – each netting a cool million.

McQueen is the heroic fire chief who attacks the inferno as it rages on the 81st floor. Newman is the architect who designed the building. As the flames increase and the smoke billows, both men do their best to save those trapped inside the penthouse of the world’s newest and tallest skyscraper. While both are heroes, McQueen is gung-ho and Newman is reluctant.

Trapped inside the building include the architect’s girlfriend (Faye Dunaway), a cagey old grifter (Fred Astaire) trying to woo an affluent widow (Jennifer Jones), a conceited construction tycoon (William Holden), his daughter (Susan Blakely), and his useless son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain). Other VIP’s of the evening are the Mayor of San Francisco (Jack Collins), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn), and the industrialist’s publicity man (Robert Wagner). Keep your scorecards ready. With this eclectic mix any of them could perish.

Steve McQueen and Paul Newman may be the names emblazoned on the movie screen, but they are far from the biggest attractions in the picture. That honor goes to the inferno and the skyscraper. Sure, they are the products of movie magic, but they also drive the story. Wielding his influence, Allen wanted to produce as well as direct. The heads of Twentieth Century Fox thought better, and made a concession. Allen would direct the action sequences. British auteur John Guillerman would direct the character-driven pieces.

Stirling Silliphant masks the exposition with a series of scenes that act only to introduce the characters. There is some development in the picture, but this disaster flick is all about reacting. Especially when couples are involved. The idea of death and the turbulent effect it will have on a couple helps draw the audience in. Fred Astaire, while a con man, has genuine feelings for the woman he wants to swindle. So, when Jennifer Jones’ final scene plays, the viewer is dismayed. It truly is the most disturbing scene in The Towering Inferno.

Part spectacle, part pyrotechnic achievement, this is a movie lover’s dream. One of the best of the disaster genre, Irwin Allen ups the excitement factor and again proves why nobody does it better. For all the cheesy dialogue and boring plot twists, The Towering Inferno gives us explosions and Steve McQueen and Paul Newman competing for screen time. How often do you get to see star power like that? Plus the movie’s got surprise demise after surprise demise. So extravagant that Hans Gruber in Die Hard should be thankful he didn’t fall from the 135th story of The Glass Tower.

Score: 8/10

The DVD:

The two-disc special edition of Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno comes incased in a thick cardboard shell. The front cover has a colorful illustration of The Glass Tower, with helicopters hovering around the burning building. Guests are on the roof; firemen are fighting the blaze from an adjacent edifice. The shell protects all sides of the keep case inside, except the spine. This makes for easy retrieval.

The cover art for the keep case is a smaller recreation of The Glass Tower. Most likely the one-sheet used to advertise the picture. Some of the publicity blurbs are also included on the cover: “One tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense”. “The tallest building in the world is on fire. You are there with 294 other guests. There’s no way down. There’s no way out.”

On the back of both the shell and cover are illustrations of most of the major players in the disaster flick. The actors’ names appear above their pictures and type of character (i.e. “The Fire Chief”) underneath. Also listed are the special features found on both discs.

(Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen)

The picture quality is top-notch. Watching some of the extras for this special edition, I saw artifact issues in the old footage. Apparently, the producers of this disc saw fit to give this release a remastered video transfer. Colors are crisp. The flames look hot and dangerous. The blacks don’t appear washed out either. Excellent transfer except for a few artifact problems I noticed in the opening sequence.

Score: 8/10

(English Dolby Digital 5.1, 4.0 or 2.0 stereo)

The first disc sports more than four different sound tracks. Besides the three English tracks (5.1, 4.0 and 2.0), there’s a Spanish mono tack and a French stereo track. The audio, much like the video, is impressive. Good balance between the dialogue and hair-raising explosive sound effects.

Score: 8/10

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disaster fans couldn’t ask for anything more!

On disc 1 you will be treated to three different commentary tracks. The first is a feature-length commentary with film historian F.X. Feeney. Surprisingly, he doesn’t lose any steam while talking amiably for 160 minutes. Not trying to be screen-specific all the time, he changes his delivery and talks about a variety of subjects. The cast, the special effects, the controversies stirred over the depiction of buildings. He even manages to bring up legendary director Jean Renior when discussing the manner in which John Guillermin blocked an acting scene.

One nugget of information I thought was staggering is the fact that production began in May and wrapped in September, and the movie was released in theaters on December 16 of that same year. The last day of the production shoot was September 11, 1974. An eerie coincidence when you stop and think about it.

The other commentary tracks are scene-specific in nature. Mike Venzina, the Special Effects Director for X-Men: The Last Stand, shares his thoughts on eight different sequences – all heavy with special effects. Stunt coordinator for The Day After Tomorrow, Branko Racki chimes in with his own thoughts in nine other sequences from The Towering Inferno.

Ingenious idea to have today’s FX experts sharing their thoughts on the techniques used for old-fashioned pyrotechnics. Stunts and fire suits vs. CG. You decide what’s better.

Switching to the second disc is more featurettes and extras to keep you busy.

AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno is where we begin. This 22-minute feature originally aired in 2001. Somewhat a fluff piece, it covers the production, the frustration, the release, and the movie’s eventual legacy. While the brand-new featurettes are better than this extra, it’s fun to learn that building codes for certain soon-to-be-built skyscrapers had to be changed once The Towering Inferno was released.

Under the Featurettes heading you will find the following:

Inside the Tower: We Remember (8:15) is a retrospective piece featuring interviews and sound bites with actors Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Lively, as well as production illustrator Joseph Musso, and technical advisor Peter Lucarelli. Interesting observations surrounding the production. Fred Astaire dressed like a movie star everyday, whether he was needed or not. Always wore a suit to the set and sported a pair of thousand-dollar shoes.

The practical effects used while in production, not in post, are exemplified with words in Innovating Tower: The SPFX of an Inferno. A little over six minutes in length, archival footage of Irwin Allen is cut together with interviews by cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, FX technician Mike Vezina, Musso and actress Susan Flannery.

The Art of Towering (5:18) has production illustrators Nikita Knatz, Dan Goozee and Musso explaining the importance of pre-production storyboards. (And their willingness to prove that The Poseidon Adventure wasn’t a fluke.) A picture this big needed more than 2,500 hand drawn illustrations. Irwin Allen’s attention to detail even went as far as to get the likenesses of each actor and apply them to the artwork.

Irwin Allen: The Great Producer (6:26) A bunch of old favorites from the above featurettes, and a few more who worked with Allen on Poseidon (Roddy McDowall, Carol Lynley and Stella Stevens), share stories about the larger-than-life producer. Like the time Allen took Stevens to his favorite restaurant, Jack in the Box. But there was a problem. Stevens was a vegetarian.

Directing the Inferno (4:28) is dedicated to showing the manner in which The Towering Inferno was directed. Allen was given the opportunity to direct the action sequences, even though he wanted to direct the entire picture. The more cultured John Guillerman, who liked to chew on a pipe while shooting, handled the plot, the character-driven sequences. Cast members recall how John was reserved. Allen was the loud one. Both Guillerman and Newman would argue before each scene. A warm up exercise. No fisticuffs.

Putting Out Fire (4:58) includes comments from Pete Lucarelli, the youngest Fire Chief in San Francisco. He was hired as a technical advisor. He taught the crew and the actors the importance of fire safety in a production environment. If a flame grew above a certain height, extinguishers had to be used and the set had to be recreated.

Stunt performers Lightning Bear, Jeannie Epper and Ernie Orsatti (best remembered for his fall in The Poseidon Adventure) are featured in Running on Fire (5:52). Each performer talks about their experiences with fire. Along with tech. Advisor Lucarelli, actors Richard Chamberlain and Robert Vaughn also talk about what it was like to be that close to the flames. Chamberlain was so perturbed about the possibility of being burned, that he actually spent hours in his dressing room. That thought running over and over in his head.

Roger Chikhani, architect and President of the Luckman Partnership, takes time to compare four of the tallest structures around the globe. Still the World’s Tallest Building (8:22) begins with a quote from Genesis, Chapter 11. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” From this statement, the featurette spotlights Taipei 101, a 1,671-foot building, the towers in Kuala Lumpur (as seen in Entrapment), and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Had the Glass Tower been a reality, it would be the tallest building in the world.

The Writer: Stirling Silliphant (9:11) is a fascinating piece on the compulsive, committed writer. Former agent Don Kopaloff, authors David Morrell and Christopher Vogler, and many others reflect on the impressive career of the prolific screenwriter. Silliphant was so dedicated to his craft he would work on multiple projects at once. Penning such TV series as Naked City and Route 66, he moved to film and won an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night.

(Note: This featurette is also included on the new Posiedon Adventure SE release.)

Finished with the new featurettes, the viewer is treated to some Vintage Promotional Material. The NATO Presentation Reel (11:07) is rather goofy. Irwin Allen is the focus as he flaunts a bunch of movies part of his multi-million dollar deal with Twentieth Century Fox. Posters are shown, promises are made, but many of the movies never happened. The original 1974 featurettes (8:15 and 7:21) focus on the importance of the blockbuster – the “new art form of the 20th century” as Allen likes to call it – and the climax of The Towering Inferno. There’s an Irwin Allen interview from 1977 where he answers questions about the inferno project. The last of the vintage promotions are the original teaser and theatrical trailer, and a bonus trailer for The Poseidon Adventure.

Disaster fans who can remember when The Towering Inferno aired on network television are sure to enjoy the collection of 34 extended and deleted scenes. It’s a shame that elements from the TV version were not in good enough condition to present the full broadcast cut on DVD. Instead, the viewer can play the scenes individually or all at once. Black and white handles of the theatrical version are shown before and after the extended TV footage.

Finishing close to 45 minutes of deleted footage, you’ll find three American Cinematographer articles to click through: The Towering Inferno and How it Was Filmed (23 pages), Photographing the Dramatic Sequences for The Towering Inferno (26 pages), and “Action Unit” Lives Up to Its Name While Shooting The Towering Inferno (34 pages).

In the Galleries section you’ll find images for shot compositions, publicity material, behind the scenes photos, conceptual sketches, and costume designs.

The final extra is a series of Storyboard Comparisons: Fallen Stairwell, Helicopter Crash, Elevator Shaft, Scenic Elevator, Buoy Chair and Water Tank Explosion.


Score: 9/10

InsidePulse’s Ratings for The Towering Inferno
(OUT OF 10)