Follow TV Tropes


Film / City on Fire

Go To

City on Fire is a 1979 Disaster Movie starring, among many, Barry Newman, Ava Gardner and a pre-syndrome Leslie Nielsen.

In an unnamed Midwestern city, Herman Stover, an oil refinery worker, finds out that he isn't getting the promotion that he's had his eyes on. After being laid off instead, he takes out his frustration on the city by sabotaging his workplace. Add the city's hilariously poor zoning that has placed the oil refinery right in the middle of the city, courtesy of the mayor's questionable dealings, and a major water shortage, and the result is a perfect storm that soon has the whole city in flames. Among the buildings hit by the fire is a not-quite-up-to-code hospital that employs the affable Dr. Whitman and a take-no-shit nurse, Andrea Harper. Did we mention that Stover had been obsessed with Dr. Whitman's fiancée?

Not to be confused with the 1987 Hong Kong action movie or the 1993 Taiwan action movie of the same name or with the 2015 novel.

For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where they riffed the movie, see here.

Tropes present in this film:

  • Action Politician: While a lot of the disaster can be attributed to Mayor Dudley's unscrupulous decisions regarding the location of the chemical plant in the city, Dudley doesn't become a sniveling coward. He proactively uses the hospital's fire hose to try to keep the flames at bay, then uses it to wet down the patients and staff when they have to abandon the hospital out of concerns for their safety. He's the next to last person to leave, and only leaves at the insistence of Dr. Whitman. Also, when Whitman becomes trapped, he goes out of the way, even putting himself in some danger, trying to guide Whitman out of the flames, and he gets a Karma Houdini.
  • The Alcoholic: Maggie Grayson, who has trouble staying sober even during the disaster. Almost self-sabotaging when she's selected to be the sole reporter covering the tragedy.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Herman has it BAD for Diana, to the point where he clips out newspaper articles with her picture, and occasionally goes to events where Diana's charitable donations are being highlighted and she's going to be present. Herman's WIFE even spots him in the crowd in the background of one on T.V. Diana ends up having no idea he's attracted to her, and the few times he tries to let her know, it's when she's in the middle of something more important, such as, you know, helping the victims of the fire HE helped cause. It doesn't help that she was a freshman in high school when Herman was a senior, so they were barely in school together for a year. And up until the finale, Diana seems to have a, um...Preference for the older set. The REAL older set. Before the film starts, we find out she was married to the Governor, who recently died. And Mayor Dudley isn't a spring chicken either.
  • And Starring: Henry Fonda as fire chief Albert Risley. And unlike other films of the decade in which he was given special billing due to his still highly-recognizable name, he actually gets to play a substantial role in this, and show off his abilities. Interestingly, instead of a "With," or something of the derivative, Ava Gardner also gets an "And" credit, and like Fonda, also plays a key role in the proceedings.
  • Anyone Can Die: Largely subverted. Of the main cast, only Nurse Harper ends up dying, and even then, it's right at the end.
  • Asshole Victim: Terry James, the photographer who was stalking Andrea, is burned in a fire and then hit by a car because he was trying to get the photos he had taken, making it pretty hard to feel sorry for him. Also Herman. While evacuating the hospital, he drops the photos he stole from Terry that Terry saved from the fire, and a big pile of scaffolding drops on him while he stops to pick them back up.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Dr. Frank Whitman and Diana are at odds in the early goings, and Whitman is resentful of the rumor that he only got the job as the new hospital's administrator by sleeping with Diana. He also coldly asks her if she enjoyed the show as she watches Whitman's attempts to save a gravely-injured firefighter fail, and snidely takes over giving Diana a tour of the new hospital, since she made a $3 million donation to fund it. Over the course of the film, both his and Diana's selflessness in helping others during the disaster spark an attraction between them, and at the end, she dumps Mayor Dudley to pursue a relationship with Whitman.
  • Ax-Crazy: Herman in the first part of the film when he fouls up the refinery and releases flammable chemicals into the city's sewers.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Jimbo, played by James Franciscus, is essentially Maggie Grayson's keeper. When the situation escalates and Maggie keeps turning to alcohol to get through it, he eventually takes away her access to it. Later, when Maggie is about to go national with her coverage and she's drunk herself into a stupor, he carries her to the shower and sprays cold water on her as she screams obscenities at him and threatens to fire him. She quickly cools off, realizing Jimbo had to do what he did. All's well in the end as well. Maggie gets through her coverage and Jimbo takes her out for celebratory drinks.
  • The Big Board: The fire department has one to map the spread of the fire.
  • Big Good: Fire Chief Risley, who coordinates all of the response to the fire situation around the city, and is the one that quickly notices that the environment around the hospital is rapidly deteriorating and that Whitman, Dudley, and everyone else needs to evacuate immediately or risk being killed. He's quickly proven right when, after the final survivors are evacuated, the hospital explodes.
    • At the hospital, Dr. Whitman fills this role for the most part.
  • Broken Aesop: In the end, the fire chief laments that the events of the movie could happen in any city. You know, any city with outrageous zoning that has an oil refinery in the middle of it, badly constructed buildings and a single nutcase able to run around without anyone catching him.
  • Canada Does Not Exist/Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The film was shot in Montreal, but where the story actually takes place is left ambiguous.
  • Cassandra Truth: Before the big fire starts, Dr. Whitman chews the Mayor out for allowing the refinery to be built in the middle of the city and not ensuring that the buildings around it were built to code.
  • The Casanova: Dr. Frank Whitman. We see him making breakfast for the young, attractive new nurse at the hospital that's occupying Whitman's bed, and it becomes fairly clear this isn't an uncommon occurrence for him. He also declines her invitation to make him dinner later that night so she can see him again. Subverted by the end, when Whitman and Diana demonstrate they have feelings for each other, and are going to purse a romantic relationship. Even though Whitman and Diana both say it will never work, it doesn't stop them from smiling and kissing each other.
  • Cool Car: Dr. Frank Whitman drives a 1971 Maserati Ghibli. It makes sense when you consider Whitman is played by Barry Newman, who also famously drove the 1970 Dodge Challenger in Vanishing Point.
  • Damage Control: The fire department spends most of the fire trying to keep it from hitting the hospital. The fire does hit the building, though the firemen manage to stall it a bit and buy people time to get out.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Most characters are killed in the fire, subverted however, by the fact that the only front-billed character to actually get killed off is Nurse Harper..
  • Disney Villain Death: During one of the explosions, some refinery workers die in a fall.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Herman sabotages the refinery because he was passed up for a promotion and was fired when he wouldn't accept a transfer elsewhere. This results in the deaths of a number of his co-workers at the refinery, as well as thousands of people in the city.
  • Dumped via Text Message: Despite the secretive relationship Diana has been maintaining with Mayor Dudley, by the end, she's fallen for Dr. Whitman, and starts to pursue him romantically as Dudley gives a post-fire speech on T.V.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It's called City on Fire for a reason.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Herman is stunned and jealous when he comes across photos taken by a paparazzi that show Diana kissing Mayor Dudley. He attempts to confront her about it, but it's at a terrible time and she rebuffs him without ever knowing what he wanted to talk to her about.
  • The Hero: Everyone has their moments. Dr. Whitman, Nurse Harper, Diana, and Chief Risley are the main heroes, and Whitman ends up getting the girl. Even Mayor Dudley has his heroic moments, especially towards the finale. Herman also helps, but since the fire was largely instigated by his actions, he hardly qualifies.
  • Jerkass: Herman. Part of the reason he sabotages the refinery is because he thinks, in some twisted way, it will make Diana notice him. Later, he comes into possession of the photos secretly taken of Diana kissing Mayor Dudley and tries to get her to focus on him and talk about it WHILE she's helping a pregnant woman try to deliver her baby. When she essentially tells him to pound sand, the rejection gets to him so much that he later dies trying to recover the incriminating photos that he dropped in a daze while leaving the hospital.
  • Jerkass Fašade: Dr. Frank Whitman. The opening of the film shows he's a regular womanizer, and he's shown having spent the night with one of the hospital's new nurses and isn't all that interested in taking things further. He also has an antagonistic relationship with the hospital's biggest benefactor, Diana. But he's an excellent doctor, and keeps it together when the hospital is under threat by fire. Whitman and Diana also develop an attraction to each other over the course of the film, and end up together.
  • Karma Houdini: The final scene of the movie has Mayor Dudley playing the Humble Hero to the press after his admittedly brave actions to help evacuate the hospital (which included standing out in the fire to spray down everyone else in the last wave of evacuees so they could run to safety with less risk of burning, being the second to last person to evacuate, and actually going back to help after Whitman gets trapped behind some debris), with everyone forgetting the poor policy decisions he made that allowed the fire to become so serious in the first place, though we don't know if he emerged entirely unscathed in the aftermath as the film ends there.
    • Zigzagged with Herman. His insane decision to sabotage the refinery later causes the majority of the city to burn, and results in the deaths of thousands of people. While he doesn't survive, he dies without ANYONE ever finding out about his direct involvement in causing the substantial fires around the city.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Herman, who sabotaged the refinery, in part, to try to get his secret crush Diana's attention. He not only fails to do so, he ends up being killed by disrupted and falling scaffolding from the fire he directly caused by releasing gas and chemicals into the city's infrastructure.
  • The Lancer: Diana to Dr. Whitman, Johnny to Mayor Dudley.
  • The Load: Subverted. Initially, Diana's main attributes seem to be marrying older, powerful men and spending money charitably, but when the disaster strikes, she doesn't hesitate to get her hands dirty and help out the situation, as the hospital is swarmed with fire victims and just doesn't have enough of a staff to handle them all.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Before he goes on his vandalism rampage through the refinery, Herman laments the fact that he's been places where Diana has been and she hasn't noticed him, saying that she will. He's proven correct when he skips out on the refinery after sabotaging it, buys a new suit, makes sure he's at Diana's public speaking event at the hospital's opening ceremony, and assists here with victims of the catastrophe he helped create, while claiming he's a paramedic. Despite that, she still unwittingly spurns him when he bothers her while she's assisting a patient.
  • The Medic: Despite essentially serving as the new hospital's administrator, Dr. Frank Whitman is very hands-on throughout the entirety of the film, even before things go sideways and it's all hands on deck. Diana also ends up as this. Despite seemingly being just a rich, pampered, socialite, she takes an active role in helping the fire victims, and assisting a woman give birth when there's no medical staff available.
  • Paparazzi: A photographer has been stalking Diana to get some incriminating pictures, and is successful. He later gets himself fatally burned trying to keep them.
  • Passed-Over Promotion: Herman. And boy, does he not take it well...
  • Retirony: Subverted. Fire Chief Risley shows his son a yacht he intends to purchase when he retires in a couple of months, making the audience suspect that the fire foreshadowed by the film's title will result in Risley's One Last Job, but he remains a key player throughout the film, and easily survives the events to presumably purse that retirement after the credits roll.
  • Skewed Priorities: During the disaster, the TV producer, Jimbo, keeps being impressed by the good shots of the fire they're getting. Also, the paparazzi Terry James, who gets badly injured trying to retrieve some photos he had taken.
    • Herman tries to show Diana the photos of her and Dudley kissing, and talk about their "future" as Diana is trying to aid a woman give birth without anesthesia. Diana does NOT take it well.
  • Sleazy Politician: Mayor Dudley, whose private favors and shady dealings have resulted in the refinery being built in the middle of the city. Somewhat subverted in his actions for the remainder of the film, such as using the hospital's fire hose to soak escapees from the hospital, and being one of the very last to leave.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Herman has been following Diana, having had an obsession with her since they were in high school together.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Cars, pipelines, buildings, you name it.
  • Toilet Humour: In the midst of a massive, life-threatening fire, the film takes the time to include a scene of an old guy in a wheelchair being helped to a bedpan so he can use it outside the hospital.
  • Tragic Mistake: When Herman, who she doesn't know was largely responsible for the fire, gets trapped by falling scaffolding, Nurse Harper goes back to help him, and gets killed right along with Herman when more debris collapses on her.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Early in the film, a group of children are smoking cigarettes together and accidentally start a smaller fire by dropping a lit one into a trash can.
  • Villainous Friendship: The Mayor and his aide, Johnny, may be two shady guys, but the Mayor is pretty upset when Johnny dies of a heart attack.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Diana, Dr. Whitman's eventual love interest. Her net worth is estimated in the film at around $35 million.