City on Fire (1979)
Directed by: Alvin Rakoff
Starring: Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, Ava Gardner, Henry Fonda, James Franciscus
Shelley Winters’ demise in The Poseidon Adventure was one of the highlights of that movie. While it’s nice to meet her again in another 70’s disaster flick, this time neither her character nor the surrounding movie is quite as compelling.
Taking its cues from the classic Irwin Allen school of disaster movie structure, City on Fire uses the ridiculously interconnected lives of too many characters to tell the story of a nameless city being ravaged by uncontrollable fire.
We get an early teaser about what is to come as a group of kids sneak up into a tree house to smoke cigarettes. One of the boys chokes on the smoke and drops the cigarette, causing his own house to catch fire. His little sister is caught inside and is rescued by a pair of brave firefighters, one of whom gives his life in the process. (Meanwhile, the World’s Officially Most Annoying News Reporter covers the drama on site.) Unproportionate time is spent on this episode, given that it is basically irrelevant to the rest of the film. It’s an indication of the kind of problems afflicting this movie.
The real action starts later. This nameless city has been blessed with a large chemical refinery which, rather unusually, is located in the middle of the city — actually, as it turns out, not that far from a newly constructed hospital. Good city planning there. A maintenance worker named Stover (Jonathan Welsh) loses his job and decides to get his revenge by running around the plant like a madman, opening any valves and throwing every switch he comes across. Some kind of very flammable liquid leaks into the sewers where a couple of workers do some welding, and you can guess what happens next. It doesn’t take long before the entire city is rocked by explosions as the fire spreads. From that point, the action focuses on the new hospital, where most major characters converge — including crazy guy Stover, the mayor (Leslie Nielsen), a dashing surgeon (Barry Newman), and a beautiful socialite (Susan Clark). Oh, and the nurse played by Shelley Winters, of course.
I want to like this film but find myself vacillating between enjoyment and utter boredom. Too many and too annoying characters make the first half of the movie a bit tedious. As the refinery explodes and fires start spreading (a pretty fun sequence in itself) a general sense of vagueness sets in as it’s far from clear how the fire actually conquers the city. I don’t quite understand how fires in one place can make cars or buildings explode blocks away. I realize that it’s supposed to be a consequence of spreading fires, but the cause-and-effect setup seems a bit hazy. By the way, we get to see an entire skyscraper bursting into flames, but no one seems to notice. No firefighters rush to the scene, no one even mentions it. Bit strange, I thought. (All the more so as in the few wide shots we’re treated to, that skyscraper appears to be the only major building on fire in the city, while a weird northern lights-like effect goes on in the sky.)
Anyway – the best part of this film is undoubtedly its eagerness to show people burning horribly to death. At least five characters catch on fire and flail around in agony for generous stretches of screen time. One of these stand out in particular: a photographer who has been stalking the socialite to get compromising pictures of her runs into his burning house to save said pics, his clothes catching on fire during the attempt. The guy runs out into the street, all aflame, only to be mowed down by a speeding car. It is a gloriously vicious sequence. (There’s also a nice, long take of a hospital patient bursting into flames as she walks down the burning street.)
As for the fires, I had expected more. Apart from the explosions rocking the refinery, there isn’t very much fire going on until the end, during the evacuation of the hospital. However, most of the fire is confined to one single street set, which looks okay but gets a bit over-used as the evacuation sequence goes on for so long it actually gets boring. In a movie called City on Fire, I had hoped to see a bit more of the actual city actually on fire.
The pacing is generally slow, the director frequently wasting time on irrelevant details or less than thrilling subplots. The most annoying of these features Ava Gardner as an aging, alcoholic television presenter, who reports on the crisis live on the air (while not busy chugging gin in her dressing room), reading updates in a despondent voice against a pitch-black background. You know, just like they do on CNN.
There’s also good old Henry Fonda, who ended his career with, among other things, a bunch of disaster flicks, including The Swarm, Meteor, and this one. His job here is basically the same as Jimmy Stewart’s in Airport ’77 (or Bruce Davison in Megafault, for that matter); standing around looking worried, staring at screens or maps and talking on the phone. He plays the fire chief but is mostly as disconnected from the rest of the plot as Ava Gardner’s character.
If the action had been better held together and the whole thing trimmed down some, I believe I might have given this one a slightly higher rating; it’s a bad movie, but if you take it for what it is, it has some entertaining moments. Problem is, they are too few and far between.
(What about Shelley Winters, you say? Well — spoiler alert — in the end her character is crushed by a falling wall as she tries to aid the idiot who started the disaster. Not a patch on her heroic drowning in The Poseidon Adventure.)
Haven’t found a trailer, but here’s the part where the refinery explodes: