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Friday, May 18, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: City on Fire (1979)

It probably seemed like a sound investment. Telefilm Canada, a film company that partially draws its budgets from the Canadian government, wanted to make a movie that would be a big box office success. The company looked to their neighbors to the south, who had been flocking to disaster movies just a few years ago, for inspiration. If “The Towering Inferno” had been a huge success and only set one building on fire, surely a film about an entire city being set ablaze would be popular? Sadly for the Canadian tax payers, “City on Fire” came out at the tail end of the disaster movie era. The film would not be popular with audiences. It would be relegated to obscurity until being featured on the first public access season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where it gained some notoriety.

The city that is soon on fire is apparently meant to be in the American Midwest but is so obviously Montreal. Mayor Dudley has cut corners with construction plans, allowing an oil refinery to be built in the center of the city. He's been more preoccupied with opening a brand new hospital near-by. That's where Dr. Whitman, ex-boyfriend of the mayor's current mistress, works. Meanwhile, an employee at the refinery is fired. As a petty act of revenge, he opens the valves, flooding the sewers with gasoline. It doesn't take long for the gas to be ignited. The fire grows more and more out of control, beginning to consume the whole city. The son of the fire chief is one of the many heroes setting out to save people.

“City on Fire” is very much a B-movie attempting to replicate an A-movie with a modest, three million dollar budget. And that's why I liked it. The film didn't really have the budget to explore a story of this scope. “City on Fire” limits most of its destruction to one street, the buildings all ablaze. The film tries to compensate for this by adding lots of stock footage of buildings exploding or burning. However, there's a certain charm to this. The shots of camera crews on the top floor of the hospital, looking over a city shrouded in burning oranges and foggy purples, are dream-like and creepy. The focus on a small group allows for oddly touching moments, like Dr. Whitman leading a group of kids out of the hospital with a marching game. Or a genuinely cute subplot about a pregnant woman, about to give birth. There's maybe less flash and bang but “City on Fire's” approach has a charm all its own.

Being made on a smaller budget does allow “City of Fire” some freedom. It's a more disturbing fire movie than “The Towering Inferno.” An early scene of a fireman falling through a staircase into a fire is startling. There's a genuinely upsetting sequence showing the huge influx of victims into the hospital. The camera lingers on bodies that are burned, raw, bleeding, bloated, and blackened. One run through a hospital hallway shows a man completely dazed by pain, starring ahead blankly. The nastiest stunt in the movie has a burning man being struck by a car. The stuntman's wig flies off during the shot but this actually adds to the intensity of the moment.

Being a smaller production, “City on Fire” can't afford too many super well-known names. Its lead roles are occupied by Barry Newman and Susan Clark, actors best known for cult movies like “Vanishing Point” and “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” Newman and Clark are both solid in the parts, Newman being especially charming. The big names are: Leslie Nielsen as the incompetent mayor, foreshadowing his eventual turn to comedy. Shelly Winters as a heroic nurse, who takes the time to let the mayor know how much she disapproves of his administration. Ava Gardner as an alcoholic news reporter. Garder mostly plays the condition for humor. Lastly, Henry Fonda's scenes as the fire chief were clearly shot on a different set from everyone else, though Fonda still brings some of that folksy appeal to the part. The producers couldn't afford Charlton Heston but they did snag James Franciscus, his replacement from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”

I love “Mystery Science Theater 3000” but some of its fans tend to treat all the movies mocked on that show as irredeemably awful. Subsequently, “City on Fire” has a low IMDb rating and is considered one of the worst disaster movies of all time by some. This is really unfair. The film is likable. There's something scrappy about its attempt to recreate big movie thrills on a much smaller budget. Just taken as a disaster movie, the film does deliver on the expected thrills too. Look it up and give it a shot. [7/10]

[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks*
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*One of the exploded buildings is clearly based on the Place Ville Marie tower.

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