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City on Fire 1979 ***

Good movies are great, but so, in the right circumstances, are the stinkers. Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire won’t be troubling the Smithsonian anytime soon, but Amazon Prime seem to have felt it was worth a revival, introducing this shop-worn, tatty but delightfully slipshod production to a new generation. An AVCO Embassy production, this is an all-star disaster movie which really is a catastrophe, with stranded performers, a hard-to-visualise concept, and some strange production decisions that end up baking an explosive soufflé that you’ll be scraping off the inside of your oven for years to come.

The title sounds simple enough; there’s a city on fire, but which city? That question isn’t answered at all, since Canadian producers seem to have felt that to gain universal appeal, it would be better not to identify the city in question. ‘This could happen to any city, anywhere’ reads an opening title. Montreal, cheap and bland, is the actual location, but the backgrounds are as anonymous as the foreground dramas. Barry Newman cashes in the last of his Vanishing Point credibility as doctor Frank Whitman, a maverick who enjoys one-night stands and disrespects authority in the form of “Mister Mayor”, played by Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen’s subsequent stardom in Airplane and Naked Gun franchises adds value to his role here, but the scenarios he encounters are no less ridiculous; he’s paralysed with guilt when he realises that he should never have allowed an oil refinery to be built in the city centre. Who could have seen that coming? As things get worse, Whitman and the mayor are trapped by a fire-storm in a burning hospital, and have to lead an escape through a water tunnel; Nielsen was a great physical comic, and the forty minutes or so he spends directing a fire-hose over wheelchair and stretcher-bound characters have to be seen to be believed.

Exploitation whizz Jack Hill contributed to the script, and presumably the plotline concerning Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is his work. A Travis Bickle character, Stover wants society to hear him roar, and when passed over for promotion, blows up an oil refinery and then allows the raw crude oil into the city’s water supply to produce the city on fire of the title. Stover’s plea for understanding makes the Joker look positively woke, killing what would appear to be millions of people if the production values had risen to any decent effects. Meanwhile Fire Chief Henry Fonda looks concerned and newscaster Ava Gardner relates the horrors to those watching at home; Gardner’s performance suggests she’d never seen a newscaster in her life, and the weird, dreamlike voice she reads the news in is an undoubted highlight here.

In any other film, casting the venerable Shelley Winters as a young, idealistic and gutsy nurse would be a talking point, but she’s only one more shonky element in a tower of inanities. City on Fire is a so-bad-it’s-good reminder that terrible films are a perennial delight, an alternative to the seriousness of life, a pressure valve through which we can put aside our differences and laugh at the worst excesses of the entertainment industry. This film costs £0.00 on Amazon Prime and it’s worth every single penny.

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