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Two of Hollywood’s best pandemic thrillers hit home

Updated: Jan 9


(1) Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede a conspiracy theorist and blogger in San Francisco, who says Forsythia can cure the deadly virus. (2) Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff a Minneapolis businesswoman, who happens to be victim No. 1. She dies within 48 hours after contact with the virus.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)

These days, the world seems to be spinning out of control with the uncertainty of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), but over the years Hollywood has produced a number of movies that examined the possibilities of a pandemic.

Steven Soderbergh’s thriller “Contagion” (2011) has gone viral on several digital platforms, reappearing on Apple’s (iTunes) Top 10 viewed movies list for a couple of weeks running. And Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950) is just as gripping, making them the two best films that capture the reality of the bio-terror threat.

The physical disc versions available on Amazon include a number of key extras not available on digital, making the disc purchases worth your time and money.


Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2011; PG-13 for disturbing content and some language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, FandangoNOW

Best extra: High-def featurette "The Reality of Contagion" has interviews with scientists, cast members, producers and writer Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)

WHAT IF a virus wiped out 26 million people across the globe?

Soderbergh (“Traffic” and “Ocean’s Eleven”) explores the fear and progression of a deadly, worldwide epidemic in the tradition of “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) and “Outbreak” (1995).

“Contagion” is fast-moving and thought-provoking, with its numerous storylines and an all-star cast – a trademark of any disaster movie – featuring Gwyneth Paltrow as victim number one. She’s a working mom who’s just returned home from a Hong Kong business trip and dies within two days. Matt Damon plays her mystified husband, with Laurence Fishburne as the deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control, Kate Winslet and French actress Marion Cotillard as epidemiologists dropped into the deadly hotspots as the virus spreads across Asia, Europe and the U.S. Jude Law plays an irresponsible blogger.

(1-3) Three of the first victims in China, Tokyo, and London. (4) A family grieves the loss of their brother and husband.



Only the Blu-ray version provides a wealth of scientific insight, as writer Scott Z. Burns details viral battles inside our bodies: “Viruses are amazing because they don’t behave the way other living things do. They inhabit a cell and reprogram it, then use it like a Xerox machine and make copies of themselves and proliferate throughout your body.” Technical advisor Nathan Wolfe, MA, DSC, director of Global Viral Forecasting joins the discussion: “For these guys (the virus’) evolution is happening within minutes and hours, constantly changing, and if it picks up a nasty gene and it has the capacity to spread, we’re talking about something really dangerous.”

During another extra, “The Contagion Detectives,” Winslet calls her character, Dr. Erin Mears, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of the medical world. “It’s been fascinating learning a little about that world.”

(1) Medical personal come to the attention of a very sick person in China. (2) Known for her role in the BBC miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice," Jennifer Ehle plays Dr. Ally Hextall and Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control. They examine the properties of the MEV-1 virus and determined its origin and modeled the way it enters the cells of the lung and the brain. (3) Kate Winslet plays Dr. Erin Mears, epidemiologists sent to Minneapolis to trace the virus from Beth Emhoff to the community at large. (4) The Hong Kong chef who prepared the infected pig. (5) Right, Marion Cotillard plays Dr. Leonora Orantes of the World Health Organization and a Chinese health official examines the chef.



Soderbergh, who does his own cinematography, captured in a semi-documentary style using 4.5K Redcode RAW digital cameras (1.85:1 aspect ratio), and if is correct, it was mastered in 4K. The sharpness and clarity are excellent, which makes it a top candidate for a Warner Bros. 4K upgrade with HDR.


Also, the uncompressed DTS-HD audio gives composer Cliff Martinez’s rhythmic score the right vibe and tightness.

This one is terrifying and educational, but a clear warning of potential peril. Senior technical advisor Larry Brilliant, MD, MPH, president of Skoll Global Threats Fund says it so well: “I hope this movie stimulates a conversation of what preparedness means; what investments it’s going to take to make the world safe for our kids from the increased threat of epidemics.”

(1) Most of the survivors in a Chinese village are children. (2) A run for Forsythia at a drug store. (3) Matt Damon plays Mitch Emhoff, as he and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) search for food. (4) Mitch and Jory try to escape to Wisconsin but the border is closed. (5) The U.S. military and FEMA hand out MRE meals at a local park.


(1) After weeks of trial and error, Dr. Ally Hextall may have found a vaccine for the MEV-1 virus. She'll be the first test subject. (2) The vaccine was a success and a lottery was set up to start the distribution. Birthdays on March 10 will get the vaccine first. (3) Dr. Ellis Cheever administrates the vaccine to the son of a worker at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. (4) Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and her boyfriend Andrew (Brian J. O'Donnell) finally have personal contact after the vaccine.


In his first major role Walter “Jack” Palance plays gangster Blackie, who carries Poldi (Guy Thomajan) affected by the pneumonic plague down the backstairs of a New Orleans apartment building.


Blu-ray, DVD, 1950, unrated; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: A commentary track

ELIA KAZAN’s directing debut is a doozy, filmed along the New Orleans waterfront, where a murder victim is discovered with the pneumonic plague. Richard Widmark plays Dr. Clinton Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service – in one of his first good guy rolls – who races against the clock to prevent an outbreak by trying to find thugs Blackie (Walter “Jack” Palance) and Fitch (Zero Mostel), who’ve been exposed to the disease.

The opening scene is filmed in a dingy smoke-filled apartment during a card game. Circling the table is Blackie, Fitch, Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and his cousin Kochak (Lewis Charles), who we’ll later learn was an Armenian crew member on the cargo ship Nile Queen. An inspection by Dr. Reed and his team will discover the ship was filled with dead rats and eventually the crew gets inoculated and quarantined.

Kochak is complaining about a pounding headache, has a nasty cough, and wants to cash out with his winnings. Blackie objects to Kochak’s exit, but somehow he escapes with the money and the chase begins: It goes down a fire escape and then across a train yard, where Kochak cuts right in front of a moving engine. It ends along the docks when Blackie and his gang circle Kochak. After grabbing the cash, Blackie shoots Kochak, and the gang dumps his plague-infected body into the waters beside a wooden dock.

(1) The 20th Century Fox production was filmed completed in New Orleans. (2) Kochak (Lewis Charles) complains to his cousin Poldi about a pounding headache and wants to cash out with his winnings. (3&4) the gang surrounds Kochak and Blackie shoots him. They dump his plague-infected body into the waters. The next morning authorities find the body.


The cast also includes Barbara Bel Geddes (“Dallas” TV series) as Reed’s sensitive wife; and Paul Douglas as police Captain Warren, who initially rejects Reed’s authority.

Kazan uses the camera with brilliant movement and long takes, all filmed in the Big Easy, giving the actors room to breathe in their roles.

Before heading to Hollywood, Kazan had been a Broadway director and had just finished Tennessee Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The play starred a 23-year-old Marlon Brando as the rough Polish-American Stanley Kowalski. Kazan and Brando would reunite for the theatrical version of “Streetcar,” which received 12 Oscar nominations.


The disc provides a commentary by experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, who provide context to Kazan’s career, including his involvement in the House-Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, and how he studied the works of Orson Welles and John Ford to become a more visual director. Plus, they mention how Palance accidentally knocked out Widmark during a fight sequence, when he hit the actor over the head with a gun. During rehearsals, Palance used a fake plastic gun, but switched to a real one when the cameras started rolling. The disc also includes two biography featurettes on Widmark and Palance.

(1) Richard Widmark plays Dr. Clinton Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service, as he starts the inoculation of every person that had contact with Kochak's body. (2) Barbara Bel Geddes (“Dallas” TV series) as Reed’s sensitive wife. (3) Dr. Reed meets with New Orleans city leaders about the epidemic. (4) Paul Douglas as police Captain Warren, as they roundup every two-bit crook to get information about Kochak.



The original 35mm camera negative (1.37:1 aspect ratio) desperately needs a 4K-restoration, if available, or the next best option via a first-generation print or dup-negative, as dirt marks and scratches pop up throughout, with the stark film noir black and white photography. Plus, the overall sharpness is soft and without much film grain, a true sign it was sourced from an old and tired 2K master.


The original mono track is front and center without any major issues.

Aside from its mastering limitations, this one shouldn’t be missed.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Dr. Reed offers $50 to any longshoreman with any information about Kochak. (2) Captain Warren interrogates Armenian restaurant owner John Mefaris, for any information about Kochak since he was Armenian. (3) Dr. Reed goes home for a hot meal and to get some rest. He ends up sleeping on the porch to stay away from his young son.


(1) Information about Kochak leads Dr. Reed to the cargo ship Nile Queen. (2) The Mayor of New Orleans (H. Waller Fowler Jr.) and Dr. Reed meet a city park. (3) A back-alley doctor checks the condition of Poldi and determines he must be taken to a hospital.



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