Friday, May 8, 2009

City on Fire (Astral Bellevue Pathé, 1979)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode — from their early days as a local show in Minneapolis — based on a really peculiar movie called City on Fire, which I’d thought from the title would be either a sci-fi apocalypse or a juvenile-delinquency or motorcycle-gang movie. Surprise: it was really a disaster movie — in both senses of the word — and it literally dealt with a city on fire. What’s more, it actually had some capable actors, including Hollywood veterans Henry Fonda (as the unnamed city’s fire chief, playing the role with the same endless patience he’d brought to the part of the police commissioner in Madigan 11 years earlier), Ava Gardner (as a TV host who’s also a society woman and has the hots for the leading actor) and Shelley Winters (as the head nurse of a newly opened hospital — well, it couldn’t have been a 1970’s disaster movie without Shelley Winters being in it!).

Winters was her usual obnoxious self but fortunately she didn’t have much footage, and both Fonda and Gardner played their impossible roles with the grace and dignity of two old pros doing the best they could with incredibly anemic material. The rest of it was piss-poor, notwithstanding Barry Newman’s rugged good looks and genuine charisma (not enough to make him a major star, but enough to make him more watchable than anyone else in the movie of his generation), saddled with terrible plot construction and icky dialogue. Next to this one, The Towering Inferno looks like a deathless masterpiece by comparison!

It also doesn’t help that the titular fires — there are two of them, one started in a tenement building by pre-pubescent boys sneaking smokes with stolen cigarettes (which the fire department puts out easily) and one started by a disgruntled oil refinery worker who decides to get his revenge over being passed over for promotion by burning the whole place down — if he’d at least ascended to the top of the installation and screamed “Top of the world, Ma!” as he and it went up in flames the way James Cagney did at the end of White Heat, this would at least have been entertaining — even though it would have reminded us of a much better movie than this one!) — which threatens a firestorm that’s about to engulf a newly constructed hospital and kill everyone inside if our plucky hero, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman), can’t evacuate them safely in the face of the onrushing flames. This might have been genuinely exciting if the director, Alvin Rakoff, had actually been able to build up any sense of suspense or terror — or if his effects people had been able to create a genuinely convincing fire; as it is, it looks as if the “fire” effects were done by two or three schoolboys with cardboard models in their backyard.

The weirdest thing about this movie was the sheer star power that went into something that lame — the Grapes of Wrath cast member we expect to see on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is John Carradine, not Henry Fonda! — though it also doesn’t help that the writing crew (Jack Hill & David P. Lewis and Céline La Frenière) threw a lot of soap opera stuff into the mix until we got so confused we neither knew nor cared who was sleeping with whom. The MST3K crew got better at ridiculing the movies later on in the run — at one point one of them actually said, “You can’t really make fun of a movie in which so many people die,” which was true — though it was also true that the filmmakers gave us little reason to care about any of these people. I think the movie wasn’t quite 10 minutes old when Charles and I were already curling our fingers and calling, “Hey, fire — FIRE! Come on over here and take out some of these boring people!”