It was not just Irwin Allen who could make a shitty disaster movie. There are always plenty of filmmakers in Hollywood with big, but slightly blurred, vision. The spectacle is the thing, accompanied by a bevy of stars, past and present, willing to slum it in something crummy.
City on Fire, from 1979, is a joint Canadian-American production from director Alvin Rakoff, from a script by notable blaxploitation filmmaker Jack Hill, David P. Lewis, and Céline La Frenière.
In an unnamed American city (played by Montreal), civic activities are afoot. Chief Albert Risley of the fire department (Henry Fonda) presides over a high-tech command center while his son, Captain Harrison Risley (Richard Donat) is on the ground racing to emergencies. Meanwhile, a new hospital has opened in the city. The chief of surgery, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman), is on hand for opening ceremonies while still caring for his patients. He is aided by Nurse Andrea Harper (Shelley Winters), who channels everyone’s grandmother. Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen, in one of his last roles before audiences discovered his brilliant comedic abilities) shows up to glad-hand and take credit for the new facility. Let’s see, is there anyone I’ve missed? Yes, there is!
Ava Gardner has a substantial and largely pointless role as local television anchor Maggie Grayson, who also happens to be an alcoholic. Her performance is spectacular. Not because it’s good, but rather because it has so much old Hollywood glamour and overacting. It’s there in her accent, the way she walks, and the way she flips her hair. It’s totally out of place, which, strangely, makes it also a perfect fit.
Her producer at the station is Jimbo (James Franciscus). He knows he has a real turkey on his hands, being constantly worried that the audience might be able to tell that the station’s star anchor is loaded on air. He does just fine in his performance, even providing some needed levity, but he’s part of a plotline that barely contributes to the movie.
There’s one more big name to add, and that’s Susan Clark as Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec, a wealthy socialite. Her character has been marrying her way up the social ladder, and she’s at the hospital because she’s a major donor. There’s also some love triangle nonsense going on with her character that managed to be even less relevant to the movie than Maggie Grayson’s love affair with gin. Just know that when the city catches on fire, which does happen eventually in this film, Susan Clark is there.
So, how does the city catch on fire? At a nearby oil refinery, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is having a bad day. He got fired, and decided to get revenge on the company by sabotaging the refinery. He turns a bunch of dials and valves, running around the refinery like a madman, with a big ole grin on his face, and that’s enough to cause the place to blow up. The explosion rocks the city like an 8.0 earthquake, and a firestorm threatens to engulf the town.
Chief Risley’s department can’t cope with the scale of the flames, but they try, because scenes in a command center chew up running time. Fonda may have put about as much effort into his role as it does to cook up a box of mac and cheese, but at least his scenes weren’t a soap operatic sideshow.
This movie had a $3 million-dollar budget, not peanuts in 1979, but still not enough for the production to match the demands of the script. Remember, this is about an entire city going up in flames. There are early scenes where the production secured a couple buildings to burn down in real life, but in shots that used effects, the effects didn’t measure up. The first shot of the cityscape after the fire takes hold, for example, looks like a black smudge on a cheap postcard.
The fire continues to build, engulfing the same scale model building about a dozen times, and the stakes get higher for those in the hospital, where the main action in the film occurs. The final act is a desperate race to evacuate the people in the hospital before the firestorm engulfs them. This final act manages to be both tense and unoriginal, as it’s a procession of people traversing an obstacle to safety, which was a staple of disaster films. Think The Towering Inferno (the breeches buoy), The Poseidon Adventure (the swim), and ‘that volcano movie’ (the bridge).
In the notes I took while watching, I left a note to check if the That’s Armageddon sketch from The Kentucky Fried Movie was a spoof of this film. It’s not. The Kentucky Fried Movie predates this flick by two years. Either Jack Hill is a time traveler, or this flick is just a pile of boilerplate shit. This is a bad movie, but it’s a good watch if one is into shitty disaster flicks, or watching a couple Hollywood legends in their waning days. Still, chalk another one up for Alien: Resurrection. It’s a better movie than City on Fire.