Scorpion has released a Blu-ray edition of the 1979 Canadian disaster movie "City on Fire". If you've never heard of it, don't feel bad- neither had this writer and I thought I was quite familiar with the genre which arguably began with the release of "Airport" in 1970. The success of that film spawned similarly-themed adventures that generally found all-stars casts threatened by water, fire, animals and other forces of nature. Producer Irwin Allen hit two home runs with "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno", the latter representing the artistic and commercial peak of the short-lived but highly popular genre. At its height even second-grade disaster flicks could make sizable profits (a low-grade Japanese import titled "Tidal Wave" was a hit after it was "Americanized" with some brief footage of Lorne Greene included.) By the late 1970s, however, fickle audiences had tired of the sheer predictability of the disaster movie premise. The release of "Star Wars" incited a new interest in sci-fi but there were still some attempts to pump life into disaster flicks even if most of the passion and creativity had been drained from these productions. "City on Fire" is about, as you might have guessed, a city on fire. The unnamed city (actually Toronto) is the setting for a catastrophic blaze that starts as an act of sabotage caused by a disgruntled employee at a large chemical plant that has been foolishly located in the center of the urban metropolis. The seemingly minor act of mischief quickly escalates when raw fuel pours unchecked into the city's water supply. A spark ignites a huge inferno that rapidly isolates a major part of the city in a ring of fire that makes it almost impossible for firefighters to penetrate, thus leaving it to the potential victims to find their own methods of escape. Most of the action takes place inside a major hospital which is being evacuated even as the flames make it unlikely that many of the staff and patients will be able to reach safety. In order to do so they must navigate a deadly gauntlet of fire.
"City on Fire" lacks the big budget production values of the more successful disaster movies but director Alvin Rakoff and production designer William McCrow get around that obstacle in very commendable ways. Rakoff does utilize the old stand by of using actual disaster footage from news broadcasts in certain instances and uses a jittery camera to provide a sense of impending danger to otherwise stagnant buildings, at times making it look like Don Knotts was the cameraman. However, the production design is quite good and Rakoff handles the action scenes very commendably. There are some cheesy special effects, primarily scenes of the skyline burning, but the up-close action footage is spectacular at times and the movie features some of the best stunt work I've seen including many instances of the stuntman's worst nightmare: the full-body burn. The biggest star in this budget-challenged production is Henry Fonda, then in the winter of his career and seemingly content to play characters of authority who sit around offices and control rooms barking orders over telephones (i.e "Meteor", "Rollercoaster" and "The Swarm"). Old Hank would prove he still had his mojo with his final film, "On Golden Pond", that saw him win an Oscar, but in the years leading up to that he was happy to pick up quick pay checks with supporting roles in populist fare. Here he plays the stalwart fire chief trying to cope with the loss of an entire city. Barry Newman is the playboy physician who is trying frantically to save his hospital which is in the direct line of fire. He's also juggling a strained relationship with old flame (pardon the pun) Susan Clark, a glam socialite who had once been his lover. Meanwhile, she is involved in an illicit affair with the mayor (Leslie Nielsen) and is unaware that there are incriminating photos that are about to be used to blackmail both of them. Shelley Winters is wasted in a throw-away role as a bossy nurse who acts a lot like Shelley Winters and James Franciscus is a TV news producer who is trying to keep wall-to-wall coverage on the air despite that the fact that his star anchor, an aging diva (Ava Gardner) has turned up drunk right before the broadcasts. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is that it affords meaty roles to actors who are generally relegated to second-tier status. They all perform admirably but it's impossible to view any of Leslie Nielsen's pre-comedy career performances objectively. He became such a master of brilliantly spoofing his own acting style that when you view his dramatic work you keep waiting for punchlines and slapstick gags that never materialize. The film follows all the conventional elements of the standard disaster movie (i.e children in peril, a pregnant woman who goes into labor during the crisis, lovers reunited, etc.) I half expected the climax to feature the heroes trapped aboard an upended ocean liner while being menaced by a shark. However, I must say that I very much enjoyed "City on Fire". It boasts an intelligent script, fine direction and reasonably good performances. There is also an almost complete lack of humor, so you won't see Fred Astaire as a charming con man or an unbilled Walter Matthau getting soused in a bar in the midst of an earthquake. The sense of gravitas is in keeping with the dramatic scenario of people stranded within a ring of fire. The movie came a day late and a dollar short to capitalize on the disaster movie trend. It's not as slick or polished as the best entries in the genre but it's better than many others including Irwin Allen's career-ending turkeys, "The Swarm" and "When Time Ran Out".
The Scorpion Blu-ray contains a notice that the transfer was put together from various sources. There are a few blotches here and there but the Blu-ray generally looks fine. Bonus features include a TV spot for the film and a trailer gallery of other Scorpion releases. Recommended.