The Towering Inferno (Special Edition) Review

You’ll never open another storeroom door, venture to the 135th floor or let Richard Chamberlain decide on the quality of the wiring going into a building ever again…

“Architects…you know there’s no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the seventh floor but you guys keep buildin’ them as high as you can!” So says Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) to architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) when he’s called in to the Glass Tower, a 138-floor skyscraper in San Francisco that, come its official opening, develops a fault in its electrical system. As fuses pop, the wiring burns out and sparks light some rags, which are, as ill-fortune would have it, next to a set of cannisters with a warning diamond on them…flammable! As Roberts goes in search of builder James Duncan’s (William Holden) son-in-law, electrical subcontractor Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), demanding an explanation for the faulty wiring, the fire catches hold in a storeroom on the 81st floor and goes unnoticed until the opening night party is in full swing much higher up the building.

As the champagne flows, so too do the background stories – con man Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) is out to fleece a rich widow Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) but finds himself touched by her kind-heartedness, PR man Bigelow (Robert Wagner) is conducting a secret affair with Lorrie (Susan Flannery) and Patty (Susan Blakely), the daughter of James Duncan, is distraught not only to see her husband crumble under pressure but also to make a pass as Susan (Faye Dunaway), who’s actually involved with Roberts. As these play out, the fire burns with it not being until smoke creeps out from underneath the storeroom door that it’s noticed but, by then, it’s too late. A security guard opens the door, the fire bursts out and sets the carpets, paintings and ceilings alight. As firefighters arrive, the extent of the threat becomes apparent – with numerous electrical faults, and synthetic seventies fibres too no doubt, Fire Chief O’Hallorhan has little hope to offer Roberts. With the blaze is out of control, it’s time to evacuate the building but, spreading ever quicker, the fire cuts off all exits for those on the upper floors. What ought to have been a celebration turns quickly to a disaster…
Film magazines tend to be abuzz with titbits of behind-the-scenes gossip from the latest movies, particularly those still in production. News of entourages, trailer space and daily flights for nannies are breathlessly reported, with there being notes of disappointment when one reads who it is they’re referring to. Ben Affleck brings on the same reaction that I would have were I to suddenly, surprisingly and messily to discover that I was incontinent – a mix of disgust and overwhelming sadness. I care not a jot for whether he’ll be appearing in the latest, gag-less Kevin Smith comedy. And speaking of whom, there’s a director whose entire career has rested on three skits…Jay and Silent Bob, Star Wars riffs and Dante’s girlfriend having sex with a corpse. Were it not for Jason Lee, we’d have been waving farewell to Smith a long time ago. Similarly, I doubt whether even Mr and Mrs Freddie Prinze Snr. care what their son has been up to.

But then one gets a glimpse of movie history in a production like The Towering Inferno, which still make for a great listen even thirty years on. Like The Poseidon Adventure before it, much of what’s great about The Towering Inferno is due to producer/director Irwin Allen but not, this time, to him alone. The production of this film makes for such a fascinating story thanks to its two stars – Steve McQueen and Paul Newman…or Paul Newman and Steve McQueen depending on whether you read movie posters left-to-right or from the top down.

Knowing that his home studio, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers had taken options on two very similar novels, Richard Martin Stern’s The Tower and Frank Robinson and Tom Scortia’s The Glass Inferno, Irwin Allen hired screenwriter Stirling Silliphant to turn both into a single script. Pitching to both studios at the same meeting, Allen created Hollywood history by bringing both into the project for an equal share of the profits. Preparing for three weeks on location in San Francisco and for a studio shoot at Century City, Allen brought his old Poseidon Adventure team with him and began work, hiring Paul Newman to play the part of the architect, Doug Roberts, who’s responsibility for the design of the building forces him to put his own life in danger to save others. Then Steve McQueen got wind of the script and read it, demanding of Allen that he get the part of the architect. Allen refused and with the help of Ali McGraw, McQueen was convinced to take the part of the real hero of the movie, Fire Chief O’Hallorhan…but there was a problem.

Reading the script, McQueen worked out that Newman had been given 12 more lines than he was and, on the eve of the writer taking a well-deserved break, demanded that Stirling Silliphant even up the parts. McQueen’s paranoia was, by this time, well known. On the set of The Magnificent Seven, McQueen had told his co-stars that they were in danger of looking stupid next to Yul Brynner – listeners to the commentary on MGM’s Special Edition or Sony’s recent Ultimate Edition will have heard McQueen’s worries about Brynner having the biggest and blackest horse in the movie – and on The Towering Inferno, it was no different. Once the issue of the number of lines was resolved, there was still the design of the fire helmet, with McQueen wanting the lip of his raised so the audience could see more of his face but then both he and Newman pitched themselves against one another by volunteering to do all of their own stunts. The studios, unsurprisingly, held their breaths as the sets were put alight. Finally, there’s the story of billing. McQueen’s agents figured that their client ought to get top billing and ensured that it was McQueen’s name that appeared on the left hand side of the film poster. But Newman’s agents felt the same way, striking a deal that would put their client’s name to the right of McQueen’s but one line higher…two studios, two books, Irwin Allen and two stars at loggerheads. Now that’s movie history.
It’s a credit to Fox that in producing this DVD, they get the billing just right on the cover. McQueen is to the left and Newman is one line higher, with William Holden and Faye Dunaway’s names falling away as one scans the cover. Then again, like its release of the Special Edition of The Poseidon Adventure on the same day, Fox has taken care to produce a rather excellent DVD and one for a film that’s often overlooked. As big as the disaster movie was in its day, repeated scheduling of these films and the comparatively hokey stories and effects have left them looking a little unloved. What Fox (and Universal with Earthquake) have done is to restore them to their proper place, as big-screen family entertainment, the cover to this as explosive as the film itself. For all the behind-the-scenes bickering between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, we have a quite staggering cast list on this film, adding Fred Astaire, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and Susan Blakely to the two leading men. The next year’s Network seems like a respectable enough release when it had just Holden and Dunaway but there are a full eleven actors and actresses who have had their picture included on the back of this DVD. Following on from The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen really did do a picture that was bigger with the 135-story building – and how the original film poster and this DVD cover accentuates that – dwarfing the SS Poseidon.

The size of the Glass Tower is, however, as nothing compared to the unit Irwin Allen mobilised to produce this film. Not only did Allen bring two studios together but also two directors – himself and John Guillermin with Allen taking care of the action scenes whilst his partner looked after the more character-driven aspects of the film. Add in two other units for special photographic effects (Bill Abbott) and another for airborne and location shots (Jim Freeman) and you have a huge production that used fifty-seven sets, of which, thanks to fire, only eight survived. Even when Universal destroyed the entire city of Los Angeles in Earthquake, it still doesn’t seem quite as impressive as the tower torched by Irwin Allen.

Now, if all of this sounds like dick-waving by Allen – retold here as matter-of-fact – then it’s a fair reflection of the film. As much as there are small stories woven through The Towering Inferno, it does come down, as the title suggests, to a huge skyscraper on fire and it needs a suitably big film so as not to feel unbalanced. What works particularly well is that, for a near-three-hour film, Irwin Allen doesn’t waste time, choosing to set the building alight within the film’s first twenty minutes and letting it burn slowly as he introduces the characters and the theme of the piece. As he cuts back to the burning storeroom, the audience know that it’s really only a matter of time before it spreads and it’s that tension that sustains the early part of the film. As much as we’re told that it’s all Richard Chamberlain’s fault, that Susan Blakely is his perky but defensive young wife or that con man Fred Astaire is up to no good with his box of phoney share certificates, we also know that only a half hour or so must pass before Irwin Allen starts burning up his cast and, when he does, it makes for a terrific sight. Less controllable than the water of The Poseidon Adventure, the fire of The Towering Inferno really does look dangerous and you can’t help but admire the stuntmen and women prepared to set themselves alight in the name of entertainment. As stairways collapse, lifts open on the wrong floors to set their occupants on fire and explosions rock the building, Irwin Allen takes some brave decisions and never quite lets us forget that anyone can die at any time. Particularly pleasing is the early exit of Robert Wagner but there’s a great moment late in the film with the buoy chair that’s both just and terribly unfortunate.
As good as the action is, though, John Guillermin busied himself with some individual moments of character development that work very well. The relationship between Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire being a particularly touching one – she knows very well that he’s a con man but is prepared to fall for him regardless, telling him when he apologises for turning up late, “At my age, I only care that they show up at all!” Susan Blakely may well be something of a spoiled brat early in the film but her story arc has her matured by its end, telling her father that she would rather stay with him than leave. And writing of William Holden, he’s clearly a changed man by the end of the film, less the builder prepared to take risks than the concerned father who almost lost his daughter in the fire. The playing of the role of James Duncan is a typically great turn from William Holden but there’s barely a shabby performance in here. Even someone better suited to television, Robert Wagner, does well with Fred Astaire probably being the best of the lot. Like Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure, this is a hugely entertaining film that was probably the high point of the disaster movie genre. Certainly, after this, studios and audiences began to lose interest, which would suggest that for all his showmanship, Irwin Allen didn’t leave much of a legacy, at least none outside of the occasional attempt to resuscitate the genre via Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Poseidon, the recent remake of Allen’s film.

But for all of those, this film’s greatest legacy may be to convince you never to go above the third floor in a building ever again. As film historian F.X. Feeny explains on his commentary, fire marshalls never go above the third floor in a building and given a choice between a restaurant with a panoramic view or one in the lobby, they’ll always choose the latter, preferably at a table near an emergency exit and underneath a sprinkler. I believe there may be something in that. Irwin Allen may not have convinced anyone not to go on a cruise ship ever again but I would say there are a great many people who shuddered with fear as they returned to working in a skyscraper the day after seeing this in 1974. If you need a lift to get there – and what’s the first thing they tell you to do in the event of a fire? coincidence? – it may well be better not to bother.


Like The Poseidon Adventure, this new Special Edition of The Towering Inferno looks quite wonderful, with the anamorphic image being stable, clean and with a fully restored print that looks to be without damage. At times, though, it’s a hard one to really gauge properly. As with The Poseidon Adventure, much of The Towering Inferno looks quite drab – given the period in which it was made, there’s a good deal of browns, oranges and yellows – but the occasional glimpse that we get of the steel and glass of the building impresses as does the roar and the flashes of bright red of the fire trucks as they’re called out to the glass tower, complete with a lovely glint of the lights through the lenses. These moments look terrific and although there is some noticeable noise in the smoke – being The Towering Inferno, one should expect that to a small degree – there’s never the sense that Fox have done badly by this release.

Of the two audio options – Dolby Digital 4.0 and 2.0 Stereo – there isn’t a good deal to separate them. There isn’t quite as much from the rear channels in one as you might expect whilst it also sounds a little thin compared to the fuller sound of the stereo track. Both have been restored to the same extent as the picture and do sound superb but I tended to drift towards the stereo mix rather than the 4.0. Finally, there are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.


Commentaries: Film historian F.X. Feeney is on his own for this track but is good company throughout, only very occasionally letting his commentary fall silent. Without ever sounding dry or with the kind of knowledge that makes you feel embarrassed – there’s a good many times when he makes assumptions about the production design – he talks the viewer through the film, its various themes and how the characters, particularly William Holden’s, change throughout the piece. Explaining much of the behind-the-scenes conflict between its stars, particularly Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as well as the background to it, Feeney has recorded a very interesting track that, although suffering from a lack of first-hand knowledge, is still a great listen.

There are also two scene-specific commentaries by special effects directors Mike Vezina (X-Men 3, 12m44s) and Branko Racki (The Day After Tomorrow, 21m33s), who have been recorded separately but with an overlapping selection of scenes (Racki has eight compared to Vezina’s nine). As you ought to expect, these are very technical and although they contain much information on how to safely set fire to stuntmen, I think there are very few people, film fans or not, that don’t have some interest in that.

AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno (22m08s): Where the equivalent feature on The Poseidon Adventure SE begins with the struggles Irwin Allen has to get his film made, this opens with his fight to top his earlier film, then the fourth biggest movie of all time. With no small amount of excitement, Allen brought Fox and Warner Bros. together via the one pitch and, in doing so, created movie history. This rather breathless feature, which features some archive footage of Irwin Allen, discusses all that you would expect of it, including the design of the sets, the behind-the-scenes quarrels between the stars and the danger to the stuntmen as they were routinely set alight.
Featurettes: Coming together to form a complete making-of, these nine features interview the cast and crew of The Towering Inferno to create a picture of the production. The first one here, Inside The Tower (8m16s) allows some of the cast – Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain and Robert Vaughn -to talk through their experiences on the set and to see, in the words of production illustrator Joseph Musso, “what Irwin was blowing up next!” Next, it’s to the special effects with Innovating Tower (6m55s) and to the production design with The Art of Towering (5m18s), two short features that have common ground in the film’s stuntwork. With The Towering Inferno coming out before the advent of CG, both the special effects and the design of the film depended greatly on various stuntmen being prepared to be set on fire, with the layout of the sets having to take them, and how best to extinguish the flames, into account.

With this in mind, the features Putting Out Fire (4m59s) and Running On Fire (5m52) look at the use of fire in The Towering Inferno and the stuntmen who worked on the film. As Irwin Allen says in the first of these features, “Fire waits for no one” and Putting Out Fire interviews Technical Advisor Pete Lucarelli regarding the setting alight of the sets, how the fire was kept under control and how it was managed alongside the actors. Running On Fire interviews a stuntman and stuntwoman, Lightning Bear and Jeannie Epper, as well as actor-turned-stuntman, Ernie Orsatti (The Poseidon Adventure) and some of the actors, looking for their thoughts on the production with a particular interest in those stars, like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who preferred to do their own stuntwork.

There are also two features on the producer and director of the film, Irwin Allen: The Great Producer (6m26s) and Directing The Inferno (4m29s). Of these features, the second of the pair is a decent but workmanlike study of John Guillermin but the one on Irwin Allen is much more enjoyable, particularly the subsection on his hair, which sees Carol Lynley asking for forgiveness from the dead producer before attempting to describe it. With Richard Chamberlain joining in, saying that any attempt to study Allen’s hair was deflected with what Chamberlain calls a ‘hair radar’, it’s a very funny touch in a feature that warmly pays credit to Irwin Allen. With there also being a feature on the writer – The Heart Of Disaster: Stirling Silliphant (9m17s), the same feature as was included on the Special Edition of The Poseidon Adventure – this section draws to a close with Still The World’s Tallest Building (8m24), a study of the tallest buildings in the world (Taipei 101 and the Petronas Towers, for example) and how the Glass Tower would have dwarfed the pair of them.

Vintage Promotional Material: As with the Special Edition of The Poseidon Adventure, this is a catch-all for what material was produced at the time of the film’s release. Beginning with a Presentation Reel (11m07s) on producer Irwin Allen, it’s followed by two Featurettes from 1974 (8m16s, 7m21s) and an Interview With Irwin Allen (12m26s). Finally, there is a Teaser (1m35s) for The Towering Inferno and two trailers, one for The Towering Inferno (2m13s) and the other for The Poseidon Adventure (3m17s).
Extended And Deleted Scenes (44m40s): Probably the best that I’ve ever seen such scenes presented, this section takes the footage that was added for a television broadcast and puts it on the second disc. As the DVD explains, this footage is not in good enough condition to be included in the main feature but just so the viewer knows where these scenes sit, each one of the thirty-three extended or deleted scenes is bookended by black-and-white footage from the theatrical version of the film. I can’t say that I think any of them should have been included in the theatrical version of the film but having them here is a nice addition to an already-superb set.

American Cinematographer Articles: In keeping with the same structure as the Special Edition of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno gets three articles from this magazine, designed as interactive galleries with a mix of text and still images. The three articles are concerned solely with the making of the film and take in The Towering Inferno and How It Was Filmed (Charles Loring, 23 pages), Photographing The Dramatic Sequences for The Towering Inferno (Bob Fisher, 26 pages) and Action Unit Lives Up To Its Name While Shooting The Towering Inferno (David Hammond, 34 pages).

Storyboard Comparisons: There are six of these included on this disc, all of which feature a mix of footage from the film and storyboards, which dissolve into one another over their short running time. The six scenes examined are Fallen Stairwell (2m35s), Helicopter Crash (1m11s), Elevator Shaft (2m20s), Scenic Elevator (1m59s), Buoy Chair (1m54s) and Water Tank Explosion (3m08s).

What extras there are on the discs conclude with the Galleries, which include Shot Compositions, Publicity, Behind The Scenes, Conceptual Sketches and Costumes. However, this set also includes a set of eight lobby cards and two booklets, one brief one that ends with the list of chapters and a longer one that looks back at the production of The Towering Inferno, its cast and those behind the making of it, Irwin Allen, Stirling Silliphant and John Guillermin.


The recent day of disaster – 9 May 2006 – continues with the release of this DVD, accompanying Fox’s The Poseidon Adventure and Universal’s Earthquake. Like The Poseidon Adventure, this is a feature-packed release that fully restores the film to look its very best. It’s odd, though, that this film has taken so long to make it as a Special Edition – the list of stars prepared to breathe their last in a fog of noxious gasses is quite extraordinary whilst this, as well as The Poseidon Adventure, were such huge successes that it feels strange to only be seeing their SEs now as we’ve begun talking about the next generation of hardware. I suspect, though, that in preparing this release, Fox are ready for a re-release of this in HD but that shouldn’t stop anyone from buying this. Together with The Poseidon Adventure (and, less so, Earthquake), they make for a terrific pair of films and all the better, after years of pan-and-scanned television showings, for looking their very best on DVD.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: May 13, 2006

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