Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Two Plague Films

I have to admit it is rather difficult to resist the temptation, during the time of this pandemic, not to revisit favorite plague-related films: The Andromeda Strain, Twelve Monkeys, Contagion.  One not to be overlooked is Elia Kazan's tense Panic in the Streets (1950), which combines a plague story with film noir.  Set and shot in New Orleans, it stars Richard Widmark as an officer with the U.S. Public Health Service.  Along with a police captain, played by the always good Paul Douglas, the two discover that a homicide victim found on the city's waterfront is an index case, or patient zero (Gwyneth Paltrow's role in Contagion), a carrier of pneumonic plague. This leads to an investigation in which Widmark becomes convinced that everyone who came in contact with the body has to be inoculated. If this is not done within 48 hours and the pathogen that killed the man spreads widely, the city will have a disaster on its hands. Widmark's character has to talk to the petty criminals in the shadowy world the victim belonged to while dealing with city officials who don't believe his dire claims.  And, of course, there is a reporter who gets wind of the situation and who might print a story that could cause mass panic in the city.  It's fast-moving and suspenseful, and besides the people I mentioned, it also has Zero Mostel and Jack Palance.  Barbara Bel Geddes plays Widmark's wife.  It's not an obscure film by any means, but it's not a film that pops up among the most mentioned of plague-themed films. I saw it years ago and it took me by surprise. Quite good.

Less well known is a Mexican plague film scripted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez no less.  It's called El ano de la peste, from 1979, and it's an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's book, A Journal of the Plague Year.  Defoe's novel, written in 1722, is about the Great Plague of 1665 that struck London. Marquez takes the story and transposes it to a contemporary Mexican village.  As Marquez said, "I've always been interested in plagues, beginning with Oedipus RexA Journal of the Plague Year is one of my favorite books.  Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people.  They seem to have a quality of destiny.  It's the phenomenon of death on a mass scale.  What I find curious is that the great plagues have always produced great excesses.  They make people want to live more. It's that almost metaphysical dimension that interests me."

El ano de la peste concerns a doctor who becomes aware of a terrible germ killing people in a Mexican town, but by the time the authorities he has warned take him seriously, the germ has spread and all of Mexico becomes threatened.  The government (never efficient or very helpful in these movies) tries to contain the situation and is less than truthful to the public in how they deal with it.  This film is a sci-fi-horror film-thriller hybrid and is directed by Felipe Cazals.  It's an intelligent film that gets into the political and economic fallout of an ecological and medical disaster - all things that, needless to say, remain relevant.  How the film winds up I won't give away, but it does conclude with a note of pungent irony that doesn't cast an admirable light on the government authorities.

You can watch this film on You Tube.  It's worth checking out.

Happy plague film viewing!

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