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City on Fire

1979, Starring Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, James Franciscus, Ava Gardner, Henry Fonda. Directed by Alan Rakoff.

City on Fire
is a slightly misleading title for this late 1970s Canadian disaster film. Stock footage and a few process shots lazily hope to convince us that Montreal is completely engulfed in flames, but the scope proposed by the title is just too much for this low-budget film. Maybe they should have gone with Street on Fire, since almost all the fiery action takes place in one rather cramped downtown location. Or better yet, People on Fire, since no less than five stuntmen get to run around in flaming asbestos suits.

One of a handful of Canadian disaster films pumped out by Astral and executive producer Harold Greenberg in the late 1970s, City on Fire is most notable for its "star studded" ensemble cast. Henry Fonda's lengthy career was waning by the 1980s, as he proves with this appearance as Fire Captain Risley. Likewise, Ava Gardner only has a half-dozen scenes as Maggie Grayson, a rapidly aging news anchor with a fondness for the bottle that seems to be a case of method acting. Gardner never leaves one small TV station set or mingles with her co-stars, most likely because her lacklustre performance was squeezed into one hectic day on set. And then there's Shelley Winters as Nurse Harper. After a successful career, Winters found herself starring in a slew of AIP exploitation films in the late 1960s and early 1970s often as the campy villain. Her enthusiasm as Ma Barker in Bloody Mama (1970) and Mommy in Cleopatra Jones (1973) stole the show from lesser actors, but even Roseanne couldn't help her recover after slumming with Roger Corman.

Throwing a bunch of Hollywood "name" actors into a low-budget Canadian film might be the oldest trick in the tax shelter playbook, but despite getting top billing, all of these roles could rightfully be called cameos. Leslie Nielsen, who doesn't appear in many Canadian films, chews away at the juicy part of Mayor Dudley, and the rest of the plot involves Susan Clark (Webster's TV mom), who plays hoity-toity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec to Barry Newman's idealistic Dr. Whitman. And while we're name dropping, it's a good time to mention that the whole thing was written by Jack Hill, American exploitation director behind such cult classics as Spider Baby and Coffy. Alas, Airport this is not, and like Quest for the Lost City, City on Fire was canonized into bad film lore when it was ridiculed on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Watching a couple of grade-school kids sneak up to their treehouse with a package of cigarettes in the opening scene, I secretly hoped that this disaster film would be built around an anti-smoking message. Sure enough, one kid chokes on the nicotine fumes and tosses his cigarette away towards his house, inadvertently setting it on fire. With his mother out at the store, he frantically calls the fire department to save his little sister from the smoking building. They do, but one firefighter perishes when the building collapses on him. Then, the fire spreads across the whole city, killing thousands. Wait, my mistake, it's out--the city will just have to wait its turn to be on fire.

After offering just a taste of what's ahead, the film launches into the personal conflicts of each character. I've already mentioned Maggie's alcoholism, but the Mayor is photographed in a tryst with Diana, the Fire Captain is struggling with retirement, and in a tense scene full of repressed desire, Dr. Whitman and Diana just don't see eye to eye on the world.

Oil refinery employee Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is having a bad day, too--after an unexpected transfer he snaps and engages in a little industrial sabotage, releasing oil into a nearby stream. When the flammable water travels down to the sewers, welders working on a pipe set the lake ablaze in a fire that travels all the way back to the refinery, causing it to explode.

This is where the film starts to have trouble with its scope. Before long the city's on fire, or at least all of the buildings on the one street where all the main characters are attending Mayor Dudley's press conference. Everyone takes refuge inside a nearby hospital to roll up their sleeves to help, including self-important Diana. Occasionally, the action cuts away to either Maggie's newscast, which features stock footage of firemen battling infernos, or to the fire station's "war room" where Fire Captain Risley shouts loudly and pushes little toy firetrucks around a tabletop map with shuffleboard sticks.

Like Mayor Dudley and Dr. Whitman, Stover is also obsessed with Diana. Donning his best suit, he heads down to the hospital hoping the love of his life will be impressed with his ability to set cities on fire. But when a small blaze breaks out in the hospital laundry room and the remaining oxygen is threatened, Captain Risley orders an evacuation. The Mayor takes charge, covering invalids, and volunteers, in blankets and dousing them with water so they can run down the fiery street.

While waiting for the proper moment to profess his undying love, Stover finds a photographer who took incriminating pics of Diana's affair with the Mayor earlier that day. Stover decides this just might be a good icebreaker, so he grabs the only copies of the pictures just as Dudley himself shoves Herman out the door towards safety. Will they all get out in time? What about Herman and his photos? And look out for that flaming piece of scaffolding!

The film has some similarities to the first film that Astral head honcho Harold Greenberg produced, another disaster pic entitled The Neptune Factor. While that film was set in Canada, City on Fire takes place south of the border, at least in name. The actual location is given away with the smattering of French easily observable on the street signs, including one Astral Photo outlet on the fiery street (subtle product placement by Greenberg?).

City on Fire is much more Canadian in tone though, with a hospital taking the central role. At the time, Canadian hospitals were adapting to a shift towards community-based care they became private non-profit organizations governed by a local board, and their Provincial government funding was now based on community needs. That's exactly what is happening in City on Fire, as the hospital literally becomes a centre for the community with everyone cooperating to take care of the wounded. Of course, the fact that this particular public institution ultimately burns down may also be a sly editorial comment.

I won't deny that this film isn't exactly up to code, but you've got to be impressed with Greenberg and Rakoff's attempt to make it a success. Released in the same year that the tax shelters were most abused, this wasn't a production slapped together at the last minute by a producer who had no intention of releasing it City on Fire aims squarely at the box office with big stars, and enough special effects to make it worthwhile. The main problem with the film is that it focuses far too much on the hospital evacuations. Despite the fact that a few unlucky people are set ablaze while running down a street with wet blankets on their heads, the situation itself just never seems suspenseful.

Audiences eschewed City on Fire for lighter fare, including 1979's big Canadian success, Meatballs. Today, director Alvin Rakoff remains best known for Death Ship, one of the most oft-cited examples of "bad" Canadian tax shelter cinema. Like the city itself, this film seemed doomed, even before the opening credits began to roll.

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