Judge Bill Gibron says they just don't make disaster pictures like they used to.
One Tiny Spark Becomes A Night Of Blazing Suspense.
Ah, Irwin Allen. Will we ever see your like again (sit down, Roland Emmerich)? You started out in journalism, wandered over to advertising, and finally decided that the film and television biz was your calling. That was around 1953. You produced an Oscar winning documentary (The Sea Around Us), several classic TV series (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel, and of course, Lost in Space), and a few flop films (including the spoof The Story of Mankind), but in 1972 you hit on a project that would propel you from noted name to international celebrity. The Poseidon Adventure was not the first "disaster" film, but it definitely set the standard for all examples of the category to come. Two years later, Allen put the final topping on his tasty genre cake with his greatest star-studded spectacle, The Towering Inferno. Perhaps not as well known as his capsized ocean liner hit, the story of a fire in the world's biggest building was a box office (and oddly enough, critical) smash. Sadly, it would also symbolize Allen's last great gasp of gonzo genius before an eventual descent into parody.
Facts of the Case
It's the opening of the world's tallest building, and architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman, The Hudsucker Proxy) is making its dedication his swansong. He hopes that magazine editor gal pal Susan (Faye Dunaway, Network) will join him in a move to the country. But she's not convinced that leaving San Francisco is the right thing to do, and Doug's boss Jim Duncan (William Holden, Sunset Boulevard) hopes she can convince his prized employee to stay. Before the big party on the top floor of the bay area's newest skyscraper, a fire breaks out. While hoping to have it under control, the maintenance men learn that Duncan's son-in-law, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain, The Thorn Birds) has cut corners, installing bad wiring and relays that jeopardize the entire structure. Sure enough, with a penthouse filled with big wigs, the Tower explodes in a massive ball of fire. Soon, local fire chief Michael O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen, Soldier in the Rain) has a five alarm nightmare on his hands. He has to find away to save the party guests, along with several remaining residents, before the entire tower goes up like a Roman candle.
Wow…time sure has a way of messing with one's memory. For us 13 year olds, The Towering Inferno was Die Hard. It was action, action, action, accented by brilliant turns by Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and…well, that's about it. We drank in every minute of the mammoth two hour and forty-five minute running time, thrilled at the low tech bluescreen aerial views, and wondered aloud if the world would ever see a building this big (sit down, Dubai). Now, after numerous television revisits and 35 years of computer F/X advances, The Towering Inferno plays like what it really is—an overlong lesson in high rise firefighting supported by more hook and ladder stock footage than a 24 hour Backdraft marathon. Where other Allen opuses are cheesy, or downright schlocky, this droning disaster epic plays it perfectly straight—and that's its main problem. Instead of going goofy with the concept, the direct involvement by real local fire brigades keeps everything basic and by the book.
You can hear it in McQueen's character. As the no nonsense fire chief with motives as pure as his radiant blue eyes, Mr. Machismo hashes out the lingo like a true public servant. As he barks out orders, rerouting water lines and removing hazards, he's all protocol and procedure. Now there is nothing wrong with being true to life. Indeed, we want some authenticity in our otherwise wacked out life or death spectacles. But McQueen is so hampered by his need to be real that he doesn't get to give us that amazing musky swagger he's famous for. Only at the end, when the building is a loss and a last ditch effort has to be made to save everyone does Bullitt put down the rulebook and go for badass broke. Indeed, when he and an equally hemmed in Paul Newman pair up to kick the crap out of some flames, your primed and prepped heroics heart finally gets a chance to swoon.
Up until then, The Towering Inferno is a soap opera with singe marks. We get the standard melodramatics—the couple whose fallen out of love, the company man who cut corners to bank a few bucks, the elderly con artist eager to bilk a lonely old widow out of her plastic surgery savings, a couple of mandatory children, a random cat, an illicit office romance that turns "toasty," a career gal who has to choose between a big promotion and the masculine meat puppet she worships, the sudden arrival of a rather cool and collected politician, and more minor subplots than you can shake a stick at. The who's who of current and washed-up celebrities can make for a fun night of cinematic star search. Some are easy to point out—McQueen, Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden—while others will rattle the brain a bit. Without their usual TV movie setting, Susan Blakley Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Wagner appear lost. Heck, this was even five time Oscar nominee (and one time winner) Jennifer Jones' first film in five years (and, oddly enough, her last one ever).
Of course, the pawns in this particular chaotic chess game don't matter as much as the mayhem crafted by the production players themselves. For his part, Allen is credited as co-director, though he was supposedly only in charge of the action scenes (whatever that means). Also behind the lens was long time journeyman John Guillermin, a UK helmer whose primary claim to fame was 1966's The Blue Max and 1973's Shaft in Africa. It all seems too George Lucas. Neither man lights up the screen with their cinematic vision. Perhaps the most valuable behind the scenes player is screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. An Academy Award favorite (he has a trophy for In the Heat of the Night), he took two competing novels, fused them together, and came up with a relatively novel premise that places a group of hoi polloi partygoers directly in heated harm's way. Sure, you can literally guess who is going to die and whose getting a bye, but for the most part, the sudsier aspects of the storyline don't overwhelm the efficient F/X work.
In light of today's city-exploding exercises, The Towering Inferno feels small. It can't compare to the magical manipulation available to those in possession of a supercomputer. But as an example of the genre that Irwin Allen made soar, it's stellar. It's a big ridiculous grin of implausible invention. Sure, Newman grouses like a grump when he learns his beyond-code specs where screwed with by Chamberlain and Holden, but he's really just an international superstar slumming for a fabulously fat paycheck. On the other hand, McQueen is taking this skit seriously, revving up his bravado to meet nature's conflagration head on. In between all the laughable line readings and impractical rescues (a favorite—two scantily clad babes cause a helicopter to crash—no, seriously!), Allen knew what purveyors of such pap realize today—people like seeing stuff explode. They love danger and its disaster-based byproduct, and if you can stick some famous faces in it, all the better. Of course, for every Day After Tomorrow there's a Poseidon (wait—is that a fair comparison???) but when the infamous magazine editor turned producer did it, '70s audiences got in line.
And now an entirely new generation can experience the film on home video's latest fancy pants format—Blu-ray. Fox has found a way to put the elephantine film on a single disc, fleshed out with an absolute bounty of bonus features. Granted, almost every one of these added extras have been ported over from the 2006 DVD special edition, but that doesn't make them any less delightful. We are treated to an audio commentary from film historian F.X. Feeney, a pair of scene specific discussions with Mike Vénzia (F/X work on X-Men: The Last Stand) and Branko Racki, stunt coordinator for The Day After Tomorrow. Each one of these discussions sheds light on the impact a film like The Towering Inferno had on future disaster titles, as well as offering anecdotal memories of the movie itself. We are also treated to an AMC Backstory documentary which highlights some additional behind the scenes drama.
There are also 30 extended/deleted scenes (mostly missing beats or minor character interaction), nine featurettes (including looks at model making, Irwin Allen, fire effects, and writer Silliphant), and dozens of additional odds and ends (stills gallery, original trailer and electronic press kit concepts). As for the true technical specifications, this is one sharp looking and sounding Blu-ray presentation. Granted, Fox has a near forty year old film to work with, but the limited grain and occasional smudge mean nothing when compared to how pristine the 2.40:1 image looks. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC coded transfer looks amazing, as bright and as clear as the day the movie opened. The effects meld seamlessly into the overall presentation and the matte paintings and other obvious cheats never overpower the picture.
On the sound side, The Towering Inferno literally rocks the home theater set-up. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack delivers quite a lot of bang for the buck, while John Williams' score gets a nice bit of spit and polish. True, the science of several decades ago can't claim a 100% immersive experience, but the primary multi-channel track is much better than the others offered (Dolby Digital 4.0 and 2.0 Surround). There is also a Spanish Mono mix and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Espanol.
After Towering Inferno, Allen went wonky. He produced several TV versions of his patented "disaster" formula—Flood!, Fire!—and then tried to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the recently discovered 'killer' bee to fuel his famous flop The Swarm. After a lame Poseidon sequel and another attempted epic with When Time Ran Out…, Allen lumbered slowly into the background of the industry. He made a couple of appearance in the '80s—producing an all-star oddball version of Alice in Wonderland in 1985—before disappearing almost completely. He eventually died in 1991. Still, for his limited creative canon within the category, the disaster film will always be associated with the man who magnified its true commercial potential. Irwin Allen, we salute you—The Towering Inferno remains your most exaggerated, aggravating achievement.
Not Guilty. Newman and McQueen wouldn't allow it.
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