City on Fire poster

Montreal was the setting for all-star 1970s disaster movie City on Fire

Leslie Nielsen, Henry Fonda and Ava Gardner co-starred in a film that features the most expensive set ever built in Canada.

The film: City on Fire (1979)

Does Montreal play itself? The titular city on fire is never explicitly mentioned in the film, so we’ll have to assume it does not — though the general signifiers aren’t very well hidden. The production has changed the signs, the writing on police cars and so on, but it hasn’t gone as far as to hide the French writing on milk cartons or the Four Seasons hotel. Hilariously, practically the entire second half of the film takes place on a set built for the occasion that has nevertheless taken the time to include a Mike’s Submarine franchise and a Steinberg’s despite the film’s alleged Anytown, USA setting.

Notable local talent: This being a ’70s disaster movie also-ran made at the height of Canada’s tax-shelter years, the top-billed talent is a mish-mash of TV stars, character actors, A-listers slumming it and up-and-coming Canadian actors. The highest billed local actor is Donald Pilon, who plays a doctor with few lines traipsing around in the background of a few scenes; he has significantly less screen time than others such as journalist and Expos commentator Terry Haig (who plays a paparazzi whose hubris proves his tragic downfall, as you do) or Steven Chaikelson (now a professor of theatre at Columbia University — then a child actor given altogether too much heavy lifting to do in a movie of this scope).

City on Fire

Notable local landmarks: Due to the nature of the film, it would seem unlikely that the production would paralyze downtown Montreal to set everything on fire. City on Fire is set in an unnamed city where a corrupt mayor has pulled strings to build a huge-ass refinery in the centre of the city, so the City on Fire production split the difference and built sets in the East End around the refineries. Much of the film revolves around a hospital (also a set, although reports from 1979 claim that it was based on Laval’s Cité de la Santé) and neighbouring streets, though there are a few other recognizable locations: the Four Seasons hotel, the corner of St-Antoine and Robert-Bourassa, the exteriors of Place Bonaventure and Complexe Desjardins, the lobby of the TVA building in the Village (and, presumably, the interiors which serve as the sets on which the public affairs show hosted by Ava Gardner’s character is shot) and a house on fire which apparently sits at the foot of a bridge in the city. Try as I might, I could not locate said house — but since it essentially burns to the ground in the film, it seems likely that that area has undergone major changes since 1979.

Leslie Nielsen in City on Fire

I’ve written about the Canadian tax shelter years before in this column — the period between 1978 and roughly 1982 is one of the most fecund periods for Made in MTL films (along with the mid-90s to mid-2000s) for that very reason. (Here’s a refresher in case you need it.) What I hadn’t realized about this particular time period (having not been alive to witness it) was that there was a lot more than just a tax shelter brewing on the city’s film scene. It was the early years of the World Film Festival and the height of the disco boom, making Montreal a destination for celebrities even when they weren’t filming an expensive disaster movie in the East End. The papers (and particularly The Gazette, which had a nearly-daily gossip column) were constantly abuzz with the comings and goings of celebrities, while the film festival was roundly criticized for the same thing. Quebec film production had been at an all-time low, with only five local productions being made in 1978, and while producers were very enthusiastic about everything that productions like City on Fire would bring to the city, not everyone was convinced.

Jonathan Welsh and an STM bus in City on Fire

City on Fire was billed at the time as the biggest set ever built in Canada: a million dollars (roughly 20% of the film’s entire budget) was spent building it, which inevitably created hype around the film that faded away rather quickly when it was actually released. Like a lot of films made here during the tax shelter years, City on Fire is a mix of some rather impressive technical elements and of corny storytelling that’s clearly treading water in order to showcase those aforementioned technical elements. Like the very recent Godzilla vs. Kong, City on Fire is a pretext for destruction somehow ensconced in a series of soap-opera plotlines that soon take over the entire thing. If Godzilla vs. Kong feels like it encompasses all of the worst tendencies of blockbuster filmmaking, watching City on Fire so close to it suggests that it might be a feature, not a bug.

Corrupt mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) has allowed for massive oil refineries to be built in the heart of the city despite the potential danger that entails. More interested in photo opps and his ongoing affair with wealthy socialite Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), Dudley is on his way to inaugurating a new hospital when all hell breaks loose. Passed over for a promotion and obsessed with a long-standing crush on Diana, refinery maintenance man Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) decides to sabotage the refinery and get the hell out of Dodge. Soon, fire is spreading all over the city, forcing massive evacuations under the watchful eye of fire chief Albert Risley (Henry Fonda), while the newly inaugurated hospital must be evacuated at all costs by head doctor Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) and his staff.

The most expensive set ever built in Canada in City on Fire

There’s a whole heaping lot of corruption and bedroom manoeuvres to plow through before City on Fire gets to the titular urban blaze. Clark’s character alone has to wade through two marriages and two affairs in the film’s trim 106-minute runtime. It goes without saying that the film does a pretty mediocre job of setting up the various characters’ plot strands despite that being a rather common trope of disaster movies; most of its characters never meet, and they serve rather ancillary, expository purposes. (There’s an entire subplot about an alcoholic TV news journalist, played by Ava Gardner, and how the pressure of reporting on the fire drives her back to drink.) City on Fire is actually more compelling in its first half, as we watch firefighters take on a house fire and the beginnings of the disaster in the refinery. These sequences, smaller in scope than where the movie eventually takes us, allow director Alvin Rakoff to show off the complex stunts and special effects that get lost elsewhere in the film.

City on Fire
Spoiler alert! The set on fire

City on Fire is ultimately dragged down by the fact that its last half-hour is essentially one overlong evacuation sequence in which characters are shown wheeling beds out of the hospital and/or accompanying patients away from the burning hospital while the aforementioned million-dollar set burns down around them. Even adjusting the parameters to account for this being a special-effects movie from 40 years ago, this sequence is rather laborious to get through, and even the film’s strong points start to fade away as we’re treated to endless sequences of the same thing. It starts to resemble an extremely elaborate industrial video designed to train hospital employees in the case of a natural emergency — albeit one that cuts away to Henry Fonda looking concerned once in a while.

Henry Fonda in City on Fire

City on Fire wasn’t much of a hit upon release, despite its brazen appeal to commercial prospects. It has, like almost every other disaster movie from the period, more or less disappeared from the collective consciousness despite the fact that it exhibits many of the same flaws as blockbusters currently being made. Critical response was politely dismissive and the film faded away into obscurity, though Rakoff went to direct three more tax-shelter films (including another one in Montreal, the Elliott Gould-starring Dirty Tricks which was, in fact, shooting in town on the day of City on Fire’s premiere) and have a robust career in television and the theatre well into his 80s. The hype that followed the film locally never stuck past production and it now exists mainly as a curiosity — worth it, perhaps, to see Leslie Nielsen in a straight disaster-movie role less than a year before Airplane! 

City on Fire is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

See previous editions of Made in MTL here.