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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The virus of 'Contagion': What are moviegoers really scared of?

September 16, 2011 | 12:17 pm

'Contagion' director Steven Soderbergh

Is it really a big surprise to discover that while America is enduring its worst economic downturn in 70 years and experiencing a paroxysm of partisan political infighting that the No. 1 movie last weekend was “Contagion,” which depicts a planet overwhelmed by a mysterious virus threatening the lives of millions? When people are beset by anxiety, they often turn to movies that allow them a vicarious release. As the crafty marketers at Warner Bros. put it on their movie poster: “Nothing Spreads Like Fear.”

It is probably no coincidence that these times of economic gloom and doom have also spawned a wave of alien invader films, including such hits as “District 9,” “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Super 8.” There is more to come, with a remake of “The Thing” arriving in theaters next month. Of course, it’s easy to shrug off an alien invasion as a popcorn fantasy. What makes “Contagion” so potent is its knockout punch of plausibility — the movie’s story is so deeply rooted in actual scientific research that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who began writing the movie several years ago, held off finishing the script until he could follow the outcome of the 2009 swine flu epidemic.

What I found most intriguing about the Steven Soderbergh movie was how closely it resembled “Panic in the Streets,” an equally unsettling thriller made in 1950 by the fabled Elia Kazan. Shot on location in New Orleans with boogie-woogie piano and blowzy jazz blaring in every dockside cafe, “Panic in the Streets” is about the desperate efforts of a public health officer, played by Richard Widmark, to stop the spread of pneumonic plague before it infects the city’s populace and perhaps the entire world.

Photos: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Michael Douglas at the 'Contagion' premiere

Although the movies are separated by 60 years and all sorts of scientific advances, they have a lot in common, both in terms of what they tell us about their filmmakers and the eras when they were made.

Though we look back at it as a time of tranquillity, we were equally alarmed at the dawn of the 1950s, when America was unnerved by Cold War anxieties sparked by the spread of communism throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. Just as “Contagion” arrived in the same year as a host of alien invader films, “Panic in the Streets” came at roughly the same time as a string of paranoid thrillers, including 1949’s “DOA” and 1951’s “The Thing From Another World.”

By the time “Panic in the Streets” was released, Hollywood was in turmoil as well. The era of loyalty oaths and House Committee on Un-American Activities investigations had arrived, with stars and filmmakers forced to disassociate themselves from any links with left-wing activities. This hit especially close to home for Kazan, a onetime communist who’d just finished making a number of unabashedly socially conscious films. When Cecil B. DeMille tried in 1950 to pass a Directors Guild bylaw that would institute a loyalty oath for the guild, it was Kazan who helped edit the speech delivered by guild chief Joseph Mankiewicz that turned the tide against DeMille’s crusade.

One of the best performances in “Panic in the Streets” is delivered by Zero Mostel, who was already in trouble for his associations with left-wing organizations. Kazan told 20th Century Fox that he wouldn’t make the film without Mostel, who was later named as a communist at a HUAC hearing and didn’t work again in the movies until the mid-1960s. (Kazan himself became a pariah with the Hollywood left for naming names when he testified before Congress in 1952.)

Made in such an anxious time, “Panic in the Streets” shares a number of affinities with “Contagion.” Both movies feature unflappable health officials — Widmark in “Panic,” Laurence Fishburne in “Contagion” — who are flawed heroes, each man making mistakes of judgment during the crush of crisis. Both films show the press covering the epidemic but in ways that offer very different perceptions of the media. The reporter character in “Panic” is just a working stiff doing his job. In “Contagion,” the media character is far more unsympathetic, a reckless tech blogger, played by Jude Law, who posts preposterous half-truths and promotes a worthless herb as a virus antidote.

The movies are products of their times. “Panic in the Streets” reflects a post-World War II liberal ideal. Even though Widmark, as a college-educated health officer, initially clashes with the blue-collar New Orleans police captain overseeing the case, the men overcome their differences and work together to squelch the outbreak. Although it would be a stretch to call “Contagion” a “tea party” movie, it does reflect much of today’s anti-government and anti-corporate sentiment.

After all, Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the movie’s Patient Zero, works for the sort of soulless global conglomerate that you can imagine taking American jobs overseas to places like Hong Kong, where the contagion begins. It is also telling that in the frenzied scramble to identify the virus, the person who finally hits pay dirt is not a government expert but an independent virologist.

As artists, Soderbergh and Kazan have a lot in common, both being fiercely personal filmmakers who managed to craft enough hits to survive in Hollywood. Although Soderbergh launched the indie film movement with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” most of his idiosyncratic films since (“Solaris,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”) have been so chilly that they have rarely connected with anyone outside of a few art-house cognoscenti. His most assured work has been Hollywood genre fare, notably the thriller “Out of Sight,” the star-studded “Ocean's” heist series, the uplifting “Erin Brockovich” and now “Contagion.”

Kazan was as critically respected as Soderbergh when he made “Panic in the Streets,” perhaps even more so, since he was also the country’s top theater director at the time. But the film marked a breakthrough for Kazan, not only because it introduced him to the streetwise energy of location shooting that he later used to great effect in “On the Waterfront,” but it inspired him to embrace the same kind of genre filmmaking that has inspired Soderbergh’s best work.

As Kazan told writer-producer Jeff Young in the book “The Master Director Discusses His Films,” “I decided that since 'Panic' wasn't deep psychologically, not to pretend that it was. It was a big lesson to me. That's what hamminess is, pretending there is more in something than there really is. There's no harm in saying, 'This isn't very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it's engaging.' “

Six decades later, “Panic in the Streets” remains just as engaging as “Contagion,” in part because it was intended as suspenseful entertainment, not message-oriented drama. The movies that linger the longest in our imagination are the ones in which the messages are buried beneath the surface. We are afraid, very afraid today — of losing our jobs, of living in a country caught in a downward spiral. When we see movies like “Contagion” or “Panic in the Streets,” where people work together to defeat an insidious virus, it gives us a dose of optimism about fending off all the other insidious forces at work in our lives. At the movies, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

RELATED:

Movie review: Kenneth Turan on 'Contagion'

Word of Mouth: 'Contagion' could really catch on

Hollywood is being invaded by...alien invader movies

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Steven Soderbergh at the Sept. 7 premiere of "Contagion" at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Credit: Evan Agostini/Associated Press

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