The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents August 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Lady in the Water
Snakes on a Plane
DVD Playback
Poseidon Adventure
Towering Inferno
Deer Hunter
Post Focus
ASC Close-Up
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Special Edition
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
20th Century Fox Home
Entertainment, $19.98

If you’re Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), the shrewd architect of the world’s tallest building, you don’t keep an elegant lady friend (Faye Dunaway), your wealthy boss (William Holden), the mayor of San Francisco, a U.S. senator and more than a hundred other important guests waiting at a party on the 135th floor of your latest creation unless it’s really important. What the guests are at first blissfully unaware of as they dine and dance in the glittering Promenade Room is that Roberts is desperately trying to contain an electrical fire on the 81st floor of the building. Within a few short hours, the skyscraper turns into a furnace of hazards for those inside, and the partiers on the top floor find themselves in a veritable deathtrap. With the help of crackerjack fire chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) and his army of firefighters, who struggle through a maelstrom of fireballs, gas leaks and explosions, Roberts and others all risk their lives to escape The Towering Inferno.

Following his immensely popular disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, producer Irwin Allen went full steam ahead with what would prove to be his crowning achievement. The Academy Award-winning, spectacularly sadistic and compulsively absorbing Towering Inferno called for twice the effort of Poseidon on every level. In an unusual move, two studios, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., agreed to collaborate on the picture because each owned movie rights to similarly themed novels. Allen himself directed the film’s groundbreaking action sequences, while John Guillermin directed the dramatic scenes.

Two excellent cinematographers, both of whom were later honored with ASC Lifetime Achievement Awards, were brought onboard: Fred J. Koenekamp, ASC (Patton) worked with Guillermin, while Joseph Biroc, ASC (Ulzana’s Raid) photographed Allen’s action sequences. Both cameramen collaborated closely; once Koenekamp finished with a set, Biroc arrived with matches. The two also worked with several other units, notably the special-effects and miniature crew headed by Bill Abbott, ASC, that were simultaneously shooting on the epic project. All of the camera crews worked within the directors’ vision to pull off a relatively seamless 2.35:1 landscape of fire and brimstone whose magnitude is often jaw-dropping. Koenekamp and Biroc shared the 1974 Academy Award for their work on the picture.

Fox recently released an excellent two-disc special edition of Towering Inferno that easily surpasses the bare-bones, non-anamorphic DVD released in 1998. This new anamorphic transfer offers a slick, accurate rendering of Koenekamp and Biroc’s incandescent images with 2.35:1 framing and excellent contrast. Like the 1998 release, this disc offers Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 sound mixes; both are fine and feature some surprising directional effects.

As with its recent special edition of The Poseidon Adventure, Fox has been incredibly generous with supplemental material. Disc one offers three separate commentary tracks. Track one features film critic F.X. Feeney, who offers a generally interesting account of the making of the film. The other two tracks, one by Mike Vezina, a special-effects coordinator, and the other by Branko Racki, a stunt coordinator, focus on the production’s landmark pyrotechnical effects.

Disc two pulls out all the stops with nine newly produced segments that total an hour and feature numerous cast and crew members. An entertaining 25-minute “AMC Backstory” provides lots of behind-the-scenes footage, and several deleted and alternate scenes are interesting. The 1974 promotional featurettes, trailers and interviews offer a glimpse of how the blockbuster was marketed, and storyboards and photo galleries reflect the film’s meticulous design. Also included is an interactive segment comprising three articles published in American Cinematographer in Feb. ’75, an issue that was devoted almost entirely to the production.

Thanks to this well produced DVD, which comes complete with a replica of the film’s original theater program and a set of lobby cards, The Towering Inferno’s epic vision of flaming chaos can continue to ignite home screens everywhere. This edition is sure to please longtime fans and garner new ones.

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