Color, 1979, 106m.
Directed by Alvin Rakoff
Starring Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, James Franciscus, Ava Gardner, Henry Fonda Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The big-budget American disaster movie was on its last legs at the end of the ‘70s as films like Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm, Meteor, The Concorde… Airport ’79, and When Time Ran Out… each nose dived at the box office before Airplane! finally put a nail in its coffin for good. Stuck in this final stretch of titles was an oddball Canadian offering, City on Fire, essentially an urban variation on one of those Irwin Allen made-for-TV disaster semi-spectacles, Fire!, from 1977. Here audiences got to marvel at a roster of Hollywood guest stars fretting around a growing conflagration that threatens to wipe out a city, and most particularly, a hospital filled with its most vulnerable citizens. More of interest to cult movie fans, the film happened to be co-scripted by the legendary Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Switchblade Sisters) and TV episode gun for fire David P. Lewis, who followed this up with Death Ship.
At an oil refinery oddly built smack in the middle of a city that looks a lot like Montreal, a ticked-off employee passed over for a promotion decides to dump its supply into the water system, apparently just to be a complete jerk. Soon the oil is seeping into the sewage system and posing an incendiary threat to the population at large, with news anchor Maggie (Gardner) covering the escalating panic as attendees at a mayoral press conference have to seek shelter in a hospital where heroic Dr. Frank Whitman (Vanishing Point’s Newman) spearheads the effort to save as many lives as possible when he isn’t trying to romance Diana (Clark) and grousing about the lacking building materials chosen by people who obviously never saw The Towering Inferno.
Though Gardner isn’t given much to do apart for reporting away from the action, City on Fire at least has the good sense to give some juicy material to disaster movie vets Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) as a diligent nurse and Henry Fonda (Meteor) as the beleaguered fire chief, with Leslie Nielsen injecting some welcome pre-Creepshow villainy as the corrupt mayor. Newman and Clark (taking a break from her usual Canadian collaborations with Bob Clark) have less to work with and make for fairly bland leads, but if you’re in the mood to see people fry to a crisp in between injections of fire stock footage, this is just the ticket. Some of the action gags and fire stunts are truly impressive, including one memorable bit halfway through that must have had first-run moviegoers doing a double take.
Made by Canadian outfit Astral Films (Rituals) and released stateside by Avco Embassy, City on Fire has had a weirdly low profile in the U.S. for decades with only a few scant TV airings and a scarce, muddy-looking Charter VHS edition giving it any sort of life for years after its initial opening. The 2016 release from Scorpion Releasing as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions fills in this missing piece of the disaster movie puzzle for what will likely be a fresh viewing experience for many viewers. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks perfectly satisfactory all things considered, with a warning opening notice about multiple film sources cobbled together here lowering expectations far more than necessary. Colors and detail are solid, print damage is mostly minimal, and it all looks quite authentic for a ‘70s indie film if quite a few steps removed from the glossy, pristine look of some studio films from the same period. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English audio also gets the job done just fine without going beyond the call of duty. Extras include a TV spot and bonus trailers for Barbarosa, Firepower, and Killer Force.