The Towering Inferno Review

From the watery depths to the fiery sky, Irwin Allen’s follow up to The Poseidon Adventure was an ambitious attempt to take the disaster movie genre to new heights (pun intended). The formula was simple: cast a long list of film stars as guests at a lavish party to celebrate the launch of the world’s tallest building: The Glass Tower, then establish that the builder/owner of the tower has built the thing on the cheap, so the wiring in the whole building has a nasty tendency to overheat. Before long a small fire breaks out in a utility room that soon becomes an epic, raging inferno and it’s up to two men to try and limit the death toll: Paul Newman’s genius architect who is wrestling with guilt over not ensuring his designs were being built to spec, and Steve McQueen’s heroic fire chief who is fighting a losing battle on multiple fronts.

An epic ode to Hollywood excess and showmanship, The Towering Inferno is probably not held to the same high regard as Poseidon, but it has made its own imprint on Hollywood history. The focus is clearly on star power and large scale set pieces as Allen casts a massive list of film legends both young and old, with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman headlining at the peak of their careers and the top of their game. Newman plays the internally conflicted but resourceful hero who seeks to put right his own neglect, while McQueen is the blue collar firefighter who stoically tries to control an impossibly bad situation, both stars play off each other brilliantly and McQueen’s attempts at one-upmanship with Newman has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. It certainly paid off, McQueen completely captures the no-nonsense technical confidence of a worker with years of training behind him and the format of having two heroes on two different fronts helps break the lengthy film down quite nicely.

The Towering Inferno is not all about star power though, the amount of fire used in the action set pieces set a new standard for dangerous and convincing disaster sequences in film, and if anything the practical effects make the film even more gripping and believable in this post-911 era of CGI-excess. You can almost feel the heat and smoke and soot seeping its way through the screen, which drags you deeper into the procedural sequences where the firemen work with the party guests to create new ways to evacuate the building.

The Disc: The first thing that strikes you about this 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 transfer is how narrow the focus is in the first 30-40minutes, Allen’s propensity to always get the actor’s faces in focus means that much of the periphery can be an out-of-focus blur - and the softness is compounded by quite a lot of optical shots. This isn’t a problem at all, but it may temper people’s opinion of this Blu-ray should they only compare the opening act to their SE DVDs. Once the action gets to the Promenade Room party the focus opens up a bit and the transfer really begins to shine, exhibiting an impressive amount of sharpness and fine detail for a 35year old film, with no egregious signs of noise reduction. There are signs of sharpening in play in the form of some thick edge enhancements creeping into a few shots. The reproduction of film grain also impresses - obviously optical shots exhibit a heavier, fuzzy layer of grain; but most of the film really only exhibits a very light layer that you’ll barely notice. It occasionally becomes heavier in certain scenes, but never imposingly so.

Colour reproduction is quite striking at times, doing wonders for the predominantly yellow/orange/brown schemes of the film – reds and blues are also very rich. Skintones appear a little flush at times but they always seem pretty much accurate for the look of this film. Black levels are pretty deep, there are one or two shots where they falter briefly but it’s possible these moments are inherent to the print. Contrast is a little high, brightness levels seem more naturalistic and shadow detail is a little low in some shots. The VC-1 encode is very strong and has a relatively low average video bitrate of 19.57Mbps, so there is a little compression noise in the image but not enough for me to notice it during regular viewing.

Sadly the only lossless sound option is a 5.1 English DTS-HD MA track, but the audio certainly seems pretty faithful and doesn’t take any liberties with the directionality or sound design of the film; all the original elements are up there across the front sound field with rears only being used for faint ambience. The quality of the sound is understandably rough around the edges, the action sequences sound pretty forceful, but bass levels are noticeably hollow. Dialogue is pretty clear but the audio does tear in the louder moments. For the most part the sound is impressively cleaned up, but quite a bit of audible hiss still remains. There are no problems with immersion though, and I’m not sure how much better the film can sound given its age, so my score reflects that. An English DD4.0 track is also included and it sounds very close to the lossless track. There are also a handful of foreign 2.0 dubs which all sound like they were recorded yesterday, and therefore are quite jarring.

There’s a myriad of short featurettes on this disc, which is great if you’re the kind of person who likes to just dip their toes in one or two brief extras at any one time, but it’s a nightmare for people hungry for a comprehensive information resource. Had these featurettes been edited together into a feature length making of then my overall impression of the footage present in the extra features would no doubt be much higher. Saying that, pretty much all the featurettes are informative and a decent enough watch in their own right, you just end up wishing they could have gone into more depth. Also present on the disc are 33 Deleted/Extended Scenes taking up a total of 44minutes, a daunting proposition for even the most ardent fans of extra footage. By far the best Extra Feature is the audio commentary by film historian F.X. Feeney, which manages to be both highly informative and entertaining.

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