City on Fire had a good idea to start with. At the beginning of the film, we are told that, "What you are about to see could happen to any city, anywhere." The story of a city being burned the same way as Atlanta in the Civil War, Rome, under Nero's rules and Pompeii under the wrath of the Vesuvius seemed like a good idea with some potential. But in the 20th Century the disaster genre had already passed an earthquake, a high rise building, a cruiseship and so on... And passing this time the City of Montreal as a Midwest city, with a big oil field next to it was pretty farfetched even for this sort of thing.
This is your typical seventies disaster predictable plot, in which an oil refinery employee who's been given the pink slip goes cuckoo by starting a fire, which spreads to the rest of the city, destroying pretty much everything. We have about six or seven other subplots; the geeky fire chief who's about to retire; the lush of a news anchor with the hottest story in town (pun intended) ; a corrupt mayor who cheats on his wife, a fat nurse with a Jewish mother complex; the philandering head doctor of the city’s newest hospital; and the rich philanthropist who has slept with just about all the men in this crazy plot. Like most of the disaster films of its time, we are introduced to all of these characters for the first half of the movie who will eventually play some key roles on the disaster. The film climaxes as the massive fire approaches a brand-new hospital where most of the main characters are trapped in a fire storm.
City on Fire is a perfect example of what happens when once respectable actors start losing fame and have to settle for this sort of crap. The film features Ava Gardner, Henry Fonda, Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, James Franciscus and Leslie Nielsen, but most of them seem bored by the material. There is very little character development, just actors playing stereotypes that seem to shout at us “The Villain”, “The Lush”, The Sexy Lady”, “The Fat Lady”, “The Cute Kid”, “The Dog”, etc. Also, instead of putting the focus on two or three characters, the movie seems determined to give equal time to each character. As a consequence there's no strong center running through the movie. You just have scenes that start up abruptly, then almost right away cut to another unrelated character in a different part of the city. All of this resulting in confusion and lots of plot points that never get resolved.
There are endless of ridiculous moments in this film; when the oil refinery explodes the camera shakes as if it was an earthquake while people around the city stumble around while debris and dry ice vapor is lazily thrown at them; a fireman finds an unconscious child in a room engulfed in flames -and starts giving her mouth-to-mouth right there; for comedy relief in the middle of the hospital evacuation an old man is shown relieving himself, and practically every scene involving Ava Gardner and her drinking problem. In addition to these classic moments the film includes the nastiest CPR sequence in movie history; lots of unpleasant scenes of burning flesh, gratuitous torture sequences involving suffocating canaries and burning dogs and the cheesiest worst special effects and cinematography ever for a movie.
The climatic scenes of patients and doctors running through a tunnel of water and the burning streets are somewhat exciting, but come so late in the film that many viewers will be asleep by then. But then again, what more can you ask in a late 70’s disaster movie other than washed up stars, bad special effects, crazy plot and Shelley Winters?