Wednesday, March 29, 2023

City on Fire (Alvin Rakoff, 1979)


Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire is a particularly grim addition to the 70’s run of disaster films, a relic of a time when audiences were assumed capable, by some producers anyway, of being entertained by almost any old thing: it lacks the resources to convey the titular burning city (unnamed here, but played by Montreal) with any kind of plausibility, but also, more damagingly, doesn't have the creative energy and sense of adventure that might have compensated for such a lack (or even made a virtue of it). Taking the thing on its own wearily literal terms, weaknesses pile up: it fails in every area of special effects, wastes time on trivial narrative devices while seeming weirdly disengaged from what presumably ought to be interesting about the whole thing (what would actually happen, if a city had 180 separate fires going, as stated here at one point?), lacks much internal consistency (almost as soon as the fire breaks out, we get a shot of an entire high-rise building collapsing in flames, which doesn’t correlate at all with what follows) and allowing no scope either for good acting or (again, perhaps more regrettably) for the enjoyably bad kind. The plot, such as it is, has a disgruntled employee sabotaging (with remarkable ease) an oil refinery located too close to the centre of town; he subsequently hangs around the hospital which dominates the “action,” as does the mayor (Leslie Nielsen), who seems weirdly unconcerned about keeping tabs on the big picture, a stalwart nurse (stalwart Shelley Winters), irascible surgeon Barry Newman (what, you expected Paul?), and sundry others. Henry Fonda as the fire chief barely leaves the situation room; even more limitingly, Ava Gardner as an alcoholic local TV personality anchors the coverage while never apparently talking to any other reporter, her broadcasts seeming desolately stark and isolated. Nevertheless, we’re informed they were a spectacular success, by some unclear measure.

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