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Case Number 00785

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The Towering Inferno

Fox // 1974 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 12th, 2000

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection (published October 12th, 2009) and The Towering Inferno (Blu-Ray) (published August 6th, 2009) are also available.

The Charge

Fire! Disaster! And lots of it!

Opening Statement

Producer Irwin Allen sure was prolific in the 1970s. He spewed out what seemed to be every disaster hit of that decade, including the now classic The Poseidon Adventure. In 1974, Irwin blazed the trail with his 2 hour, 45 minute epic The Towering Inferno. Starring some of the silver screen's biggest stars, The Towering Inferno was an instant hit for the disaster genre, paving the way for such '90s hits as Volcano and Twister. Released by Fox, The Towering Inferno is out on DVD. And it's a hot one!

Facts of the Case

At the dedication for the world's tallest skyscraper, things are about to go drastically wrong from the bottom up. The wiring in the building (alternate building materials were used) becomes faulty, catching on fire. At first it doesn't seem to be a problem, as the guests of the party are on the top floors of the skyscraper, seemingly safe from harm. But it soon becomes evident that this blaze is slowly climbing its way up the floors, trapping all who are inside.

Those that are trapped inside include Paul Newman as Doug, a steadfast rock, desperately trying to get all guests to safety; Steve McQueen as Fire Chief O'Hallerhan (Irish maybe?) barking orders to get the blaze out; Faye Dunaway as Newman's love interest; William Holden as James Duncan, the head of the building; and Richard Chamberlain as Holden's sniveling son-in-law Roger (who had the faulty wiring installed). Other starring actors of note in this ensemble piece include Fred Astaire, Dabney Coleman, Robert Wagner and O.J. Simpson. That's right, you heard me right…the Juice is loose!

It's a race against time to put out the blaze and save the guests in this thrilling 1970s adventure/disaster film.

The Evidence

I got hooked on the disaster films when I first saw Allen's The Poseidon Adventure as a kid. There was something thrilling about seeing characters trapped someplace where they have to find their way out. I loved seeing Gene Hackman trying to get his group out from a boat, downside up. As a bonus, that film had decent characters that had actual personalities (unlike many of the disaster films of today). Earnest Borgnine, Shelly Winters…all had well thought-out characters in the film. The Towering Inferno goes along those same lines.

Paul Newman gives a typically strong performance as Doug, a man determined to keep himself and everyone else alive as the fire creeps ever closer to the top. Newman is really the center hero of the film, riding alongside McQueen (who, at the time, was at the height of his popularity).

Disaster and nature are two unique foes in cinema history. You can't really hate them. They're just doing their job. In a film like The Towering Inferno the villain is fire, giver of warmth, taker of life. The effects on this film are, after 25 years, still eye popping. Now, we KNOW that the building on fire is usually just a model. But the effects team did so well at creating a vibrant, realistic model that you always buy this is the building, engulfed in flames and burning up like 13-year-olds at an N'Sync concert.

Many of the other scenes are of the firefighters attacking the blaze (and often times losing). These scenes are done especially well, almost being the granddaddy of such films as Backdraft. In fact, that Ron Howard film owes A LOT to a film like The Towering Inferno, taking many of The Towering Inferno's scenes and making them its own.

The script is a typical disaster film screenplay. Many of the characters are just there to run around, scream, and be engulfed by fire. One thing that I have always loved about big disaster films (and one of the reasons I liked Independence Day) is that, aside of the strong main characters, everyone is up for grabs and can easily be down for the count (although, even sometimes the main characters get the shaft sometimes). People fall down elevator shafts, out windows, into the fire…great fun for the kids!

The Towering Inferno is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2:35.1 widescreen, and looks pretty damn good for a 25 year old film. Fox has done a fine job of taking the negative and transferring it so it's virtually free of any specks of grain. Blacks are very solid, and red and yellows are bright and almost jump off the screen (SEE the fire in 3-D!). Although not anamorphic, Fox has done a commendable job of making an old film look new again. Bravo!

The audio mix (Dolby Digital 5.1) for The Towering Inferno is well done but nothing spectacular. Sound effects were clear enough, but John Williams music score seems to come first and foremost, the rest of the sound coming next. Don't get me wrong, the score is nice, but it tends to be a bit bombastic at times, drowning out some of the effects and character exposition (although, if you're watching this movie for character exposition, you probably also think Dazed and Confused is a good film to see about the dangers of drug use).

In the way of extras we get…are you sitting down?…a theatrical trailer! Praise the Almighty, we're saved! The trailer is full frame with much grain and scratches. But, hey, it's something (and it's from 1974). Also included is a cast and crew bio page. Don't eat all your candy in one sitting.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Well, for one thing this isn't an anamorphic transfer, so that's my first complaint. A lack of extras is my other complaint. The Towering Inferno along with The Poseidon Adventure were two really big films from the 1970s, so you thought they'd have done a little more in the line of extras. Maybe a commentary track with a few of the actors or the director? Or how about with the special effects team? That would have been a nice bonus. I can understand the lack of any "behind-the-scenes" material, and even no deleted scenes (although with a running time of almost three hours you'll think all extra footage was incorporated into the film already). I guess we'll just have to see if they plan on doing anything new down the road with such a great film.

My other complaint is one often heard by other DVD purists. Why do studios continually change the original poster artwork in exchange for some bland new photo spread of the actors for the box art? I will never understand that.

Closing Statement

For the price tag on this ($24.99-$29.99) it's a decent bargain. But the lack of extras on The Towering Inferno is highly disappointing considering what kind of a DVD it oculd have been. A good transfer with a decent sound mix makes for a fun and thrilling "disaction" film (disaster + action = dis-action).

Finally, I'd like to quickly give a out little trivia fact about what connects me to The Towering Inferno. I found out a few years ago that my third cousin is none other than Mr. Richard Chamberlain (I'm serious). I have never met him before, but Rich, if you're reading this, call me! We'll do lunch!

The Verdict

The Towering Inferno is free to go and hot to trot…catch this DVD while it's still smoldering (insert fire truck alarm sound here)!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 88
Extras: 50
Acting: 79
Story: 80
Judgment: 82

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Action
• Disaster

Distinguishing Marks

• Cast and Crew Info
• Theatrical Trailers


• IMDb

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