City On Fire

Director: Alvin Rakoff                      
Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters

During the tax shelter period of the late 70s to early 80s, Canadian filmmakers weren't forced to make movies with incest or lesbian angst - they could make real movies. They were able to make certain kinds of movies that were difficult or impossible to make afterwards, like actioners, horror, and science fiction. You'll also find efforts made in some less popular genres. Did you know that, undoubtedly jumping on the success of movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, Canada made a disaster movie of its own? That movie was City On Fire, and like those previous disaster movies, had its own all-star cast, though one of a somewhat smaller caliber. Never heard of it? Well, that's probably because it's a disaster in also another sense of the word - it's pretty awful.

At the beginning of the movie, some writing tells us, "What you are about to see could happen to any city, anywhere." That last word - anywhere - is a pretty appropriate word, since we never learn which city this movie takes place in. It's a strange city - we see army trucks with white stars on their doors, and the Leslie Nielsen character is a mayor who is planning to run for governor. On the other hand, we see a Toronto Dominion bank, and the local television station's call letters starts with a "C". From this, I have to assume that whatever city this is, it must be directly on the Canada/U.S. border.

The first part of the movie - and it's a big part - not only introduces us to the characters, but gives us much, much, much more than we care to know. We see Dr. Frank Newman make himself a disgusting looking health shake before he goes to work at the new hospital in the city. At the hospital, we meet nurse Andrea Harper (Winters) stumbling around in her baggy uniform and acting the direct opposite of the cool and professional behavior associated with nurses in real life. The hospital was funded by socialite celebrity Diana Brockhurst Lautrec (Clark), who apparently had some relationship with Dr. Newman in the past, though is now fooling around with Mayor William Dudley - and photos of them going at it "hot and heavy" were secretly taken by a couple of photographer characters, never mind their names.

You think all these connections between the characters are somewhat contrived? Just wait, I'm not finished yet. Meanwhile, at the oil refinery in the middle of the city, we are introduced to a worker there, some loser named Stafford. We learn later that he went to high school with Diana! Anyway, he quits his job when he's passed over for an important promotion, and he decides to get revenge by spinning a few dials and wheels around the refinery. The guys at the control booth are somehow unable to calm things down, and eventually the place blows its stack, causing a huge amount of fires to break out over the city.

No, I'm still not finished with describing the interrelations. From Stafford and the fire, we can connect to the city's fire chief Albert Risley (Fonda), who has the unenviable task of bringing the fires under control. When he learns (can you guess?) that the new hospital will soon be surrounded by the flames, he knows he has to send word there despite the phones being out (I assume - it's never actually said for sure.) So he contacts the Canadian TV station to have their alcoholic celebrity gossip hostess Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner) - who has James Franciscus playing a guy named "Jimbo" as her assistant - to send a televised warning to the hospital. This message is picked up by the mayor, who came to the hospital for a dedication ceremony. So see, everyone is connected to everyone else somehow!

As ludicrous as this connecting-the-characters is, it's at least less embarrassing than the actors themselves. Though Winters is quite foolish, her thankless and limited role prevents her from getting top dishonors. That award goes to Gardner, who not only looks ill, but who is laughable in the scenes she has with a bottle in her hands. The rest of the actors are clearly slumming it for the paycheck, giving their characters no sense of professionalism or command. The only partial exception is with Leslie Nielsen. Although he is completely unbelievable as a power-hungry politician, you get a sense that he sees the movie's stupidity. He puts a touch of the broad in his speech, so while he doesn't play the dialogue as a joke, you know he feels the movie is a joke. Including one goofy scene where he limps around in torn trousers, the parts in the movie he's in are more bearable.

The actors are not totally to blame for their inept characters. They are written so badly, we frequently have to make assumptions about them. For example, Nielsen's character isn't shown to be a mayor until about halfway through the movie - before then, he just seems to be some rich guy with a limo who likes to brush shoulders with the rich and famous. Also, instead of putting the focus on two or three characters, the movie seems determined to give equal time to each character - and there are a number of other characters that I haven't even mentioned in this review. There is no time to give any character some real background or personality. There's no strong center running through the movie, making it kind of like a tree without a trunk. Scenes start up, then almost right away cut to another character in a different part of the city. All of this results in each character being not just weak and forgettable, but sometimes even unfinished, as there are some plot points that never get resolved.

It wasn't as if the movie was sacrificing character development in order to show us fire, death, and destruction. For one thing, it takes almost half of the movie's 104 minute running time before the damn city catches on fire. And then what do we get? Not much. Many of the fires we see come from footage of fires originally taken by TV news departments, and much of this is seen on TVs characters are watching, which puts up another barrier of disbelievement for the audience. When the refinery explodes, the director has people around the city stumbling around while the camera shakes and debris and dry ice vapor is lazily thrown offscreen in front of the camera. There's an okay effect when a skyscraper completely explodes into flames - but how could this happen in real life? The effects get especially cheesy when shots of the cityscape aflame use a still photograph of the city with flame footage inserted in. There's a hilarious moment when a car crashes into a gas station, which uses footage from a completely different movie - and the gas station in that movie was in the middle of a desert!

There are endless examples of other ridiculous moments in City On Fire. There's the fireman that finds an unconscious child in a room almost completely engulfed in flames - and starts giving her mouth-to-mouth right there. A nurse gasps at the sight of a burnt body, even though she's probably seen plenty of even more gruesome stuff there. Two people in the sewer system who catch on fire try running out of the sewer instead of diving into the water there (and seeing them pathetically running while aflame is pretty funny to see.) And there's another nurse in the hospital who sees smoke furiously billowing out from the cracks around a door, and gets curious enough to open the door, and finding to her surprise - well, let's just say she should be thankful she's in a hospital.

City On Fire is a bad movie - bad acting, bad direction, bad writing, and bad special effects. It's a bad Canadian movie. Still, I would rather watch it again than watching the movies the Canadian government nowadays funds. Why? Yes, everything about the movie is bad, but - bad as they are - it still has the elements that we ask of a movie, elements that the Canadian government won't allow in the movies it now funds. In other words, it's a real movie.

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See also: Fallen Knight, The Peacekeeper, Tycus