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The Towering Inferno: Special Edition

The Towering Inferno (1974) is blessed by the sort of all-star cast that its genre doesn't merit — following on the heels of the original disaster blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure (1972), producer/director Irwin Allen was determined to come up with an even bigger hit, and virtually no expense was spared to get marquee names on the bill. It's what makes Inferno the most worthwhile of '70s hell-in-a-handbasket adventures, not to mention a film buff's delight, as Method stars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen rub shoulders with Old Hollywood vanguards William Holden, Fred Astaire, and Jennifer Jones. Newman stars as architect Doug Roberts, a man who criss-crosses the globe from one project to the next, but for the moment happens to be in San Francisco to oversee the dedication of his most remarkable vision — "The Glass Tower," which, at 135 floors, is the tallest building in the world. Developer James Duncan (Holden) is eager to host a gala party on the skyscraper's top floor, featuring such dignitaries as the city's mayor (Jack Collins) and a U.S. Senator (Robert Vaughn). However, the building's technical team finds itself on the lookout for a series of short-circuits in the electrical system, and before long Roberts discovers that the wiring, while legal, is not up to his standards. He immediately hunts down the project's electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who also happens to be Duncan's son-in-law. He also warns Duncan of impending disaster. But Duncan won't cancel the party, and when a fire breaks out on the 81st floor, SFFD Battalion Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (McQueen) is faced with a nightmare scenario — 300 guests have no way to get down as the fire races up to them.

Directors John Guillermin and Irwin Allen (who helmed the action sequences) knew better than to waste the talents of their very expensive cast — nearly the first third of The Towering Inferno, which runs 2 hrs., 44 min., is spent introducing characters and establishing relationships: architect Doug Roberts is at a crossroads with newspaper-editor girlfriend Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway), publicist Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) is having an affair with his secretary, and Wall Street investor Harlee Clairborne (Astaire) is romancing Lisolette Mueller (Jones, in her final film). The screenplay by veteran Stiriling Silliphant (who also penned The Poseidon Adventure) never crackles with banter or wit, but it remains interesting throughout, in part because two novels (The Tower and The Glass Inferno) were optioned for the script. Because the two novels were held by two separate studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, The Towering Inferno holds a small place in cinema history as the first studio co-production, with Fox taking the movie's domestic rights and Warner the rest of the world. A similar détente occurred within the film itself — while Paul Newman and Steve McQueen reportedly got along well enough (McQueen was to be Newman's Butch Cassidy co-star before dropping out), they shared top-billing, were paid the same amount, had identical dressing rooms (as did most of the cast), and McQueen even insisted on having the exact same number of lines as Newman, forcing Silliphant to undertake some last-minute revisions. Today, it's still remarkable to see both Newman and McQueen within the same frame, although it's not always easy to know just which one to look at. And while some of the movie's special effects seem dated compared to today's CGI standards, the action sequences are creative and exciting, in particular Newman's escape with Jones and two small children down a shattered stairwell, which still brings a sweat to the palms.

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Fox's two-disc DVD release of The Towering Inferno: Special Edition updates the previous bare-bones disc with a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a very good source-print and both Dolby Digital 4.0 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Film historian F.X. Feeney offers a commentary track, while film technicians Mike Vezina and Branko Racki offer additional scene-specific comments. Disc Two offers "AMC Backstory: The Towering Inferno" (22 min.), nine behind-the-scenes featurettes, a selection of vintage promotional materials, three American Cinematographer articles, five stills galleries, and six storyboard comparisons. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr/JJB

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