America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe


Arts & Culture

Still from Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950)

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky… A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.

—Albert Camus, La peste (1947)

The plague that gave Albert Camus’s novel its title is the plague but it is also, as Stephen Spender put it in his 1948 New York Times review, a “Social Catastrophe.” In that sense, The Plague is a political allegory with a large cast of quasi-allegorical characters—the perfect prototype for a disaster movie. Camus started writing The Plague under German occupation. The novel was published in 1947 when he was thirty-four and already, thanks to The Stranger as well as his writing for the underground resistance newspaper Combat, a cultural icon—the Humphrey Bogart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

French critics mostly read The Plague, which, after many deaths, ends by defining “plague” as “just life, no more than that,” as a metaphor for the human condition. It was also understood as an allegory of the German occupation, with France separated from the West—although the references to crematoria and concentration camps scattered throughout have intimations of something more.

Topical when published, this complex and absorbing account of how a range of men (and only men) cope with the awesome irrationality of pestilence, “a laboratory for studying attitudes,” in Spender’s phrase, now addresses our moment. It not only concerns mass death in an isolated city, but for three years, we have lived with a president obsessed with quarantine and contagion—not to mention a cable news network that two decades ago began warning of leprosy being spread by illegal immigrants from Mexico.

The novel is rich in incident. Camus’s protagonist and secret narrator Dr. Rieux notes the effect of the plague and quarantine on Oran’s residents, including the early holiday atmosphere produced by the closing of shops and offices. Gas rationing had its upside. The enforced idleness produces a city where “traffic is stopped to give a merry-making populace the freedom of the streets.” This, however, gives way to a sense of abandonment and isolation.

When not stockpiling toilet paper and keeping their social distance, Americans have been comforting themselves by streaming Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s naturalistic homage to technocratic efficiency in combating an Ebola-like pandemic. The Plague, too, was imagined as a movie, acquired by MGM as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. This was embarrassing for Camus, who cancelled the deal. The designated adapter, Richard Brooks, turned his script into Crisis (1950), in which Cary Grant plays a morally conflicted American doctor compelled to operate on the dictator of an unnamed Latin American country. The specter of a plague, in Crisis, is mutated into a revolution. The real, if unacknowledged, movie version of The Plague would be Elia Kazan’s atmospheric Panic in the Streets, released shortly before Crisis, during the summer of 1950, one month into the Korean War.

Panic in the Streets, officially derived from two stories published in Dime Detective, was an experiment in Hollywood neorealism, shot on location in New Orleans, America’s most racially mixed, exotically Caribbean city, characterized by fluid camerawork, the use of non-actors, and overlapping dialogue. Pneumonic plague—a lung infection not unlike that produced by the coronavirus—comes to America and, for much of the movie, only Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) is willing to call it such: “We have 48 hours! After that we’ll have the makings of a plague!” It’s a movie—all action, no reflection—but at the same time a tale of animated corpses, haplessly running from a sentence of death.

Camus’s Plague and Kazan’s Panic are both set in port cities open to the world and feature dedicated medical protagonists who struggle against apathetic authorities. The Plague evokes the mood of a quarantined town whose citizens realize that “they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.” In Panic, Dr. Reed aside, the people of New Orleans have no such consciousness. Camus evokes a sense of solidarity: “once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all [were] in the same boat… No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny.” Kazan, following the exigencies of a Hollywood movie, plays to audience fears, which he allays by constructing an individual hero.

Army medic and government activist, Dr. Reed wears a uniform. He also shares a surname and a career path with the nineteenth-century public health hero who instituted quarantines against yellow fever and cholera, officiously informing a skeptical meeting of New Orleans city fathers, “One of the jobs of my department is to keep the plague out of this country.” In telling people that which they don’t want to know, he’s an Ibsen-esque “enemy of the people”—a self-described alarmist who, like the martyred Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, turns out to be right.

In orchestrating a man hunt for the criminal plague carriers, Dr. Reed enlists another professional: the tough New Orleans cop (Paul Douglas). The grumpy (and Trumpy) policeman hates doctors and has irrational dislike of civil servants. Nevertheless, the men bond in battling dithering politicians and nosy reporters for control of the situation. (The Plague has a journalist as well, a visiting Parisian who first tries to escape Oran and later, as the novel’s resident romantic existentialist, comes to embrace his fate. There is also a new newspaper, the Plague Chronicle, which is initially meant to provide information and soon devolves into a vehicle for ads promising new, infallible antidotes.) Kazan, a former Communist but not yet an informer (who two years later would name and effectively blacklist eight former comrades), saw Panic as an allegory: “The Doc was a New Dealer and the policeman a Republican. That was the way we thought, the remnants of my former political training: everybody representing some social political position.”

What then, in this equation, was the pneumonic plague? It is not, as in Camus, spread by rats, but by people—namely foreigners and criminals. As the earth beneath Oran’s houses was “purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails,” diseased undocumented aliens and their gangster sponsors emerge from New Orleans waterfront dives to pollute the nation and more. (Dr. Reed’s authority extends into international waters.) In The Plague, the disease leaves “as unaccountably as it had come.” Panic in the Streets ends with a cathartic ritual cleansing as the infected criminal and major carrier (Jack Palance) is shot down while scrambling, climbing, fighting, running from the police, and demonstrating a will to escape—and, as implacable as any virus, contaminate the free world.

Given this enemy, Dr. Reed’s emphasis on army control, use of professional informers, advocacy of preventive detention, and press management provides an unavoidable metaphor. As J. Edgar Hoover told House Un-American Activities Committee in spring of 1947: Communism “is a way of life—an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the Nation.”

What was in Kazan’s mind? The Internal Security Act of 1950 prohibited entry or settlement of immigrants—like Kazan—who were or had been Communists. Panic in the Streets was released to excellent reviews, albeit not from the Daily Worker, which deemed the director’s “neo-realist” use of locations and actors to be ersatz and his movie’s premise a “mighty cheap” gimmick. The reviewer could hardly miss the movie’s coincidental illustration of Attorney General J. Howard McGrath’s recent warning that in America Communists were “everywhere—in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private businesses. And each carries in himself the germ of death for society.”

Although our president was initially paralyzed, perhaps by his own pathological fear of contagion, and thus denied the seriousness—if not the reality—of coronavirus, Panic in the Street’s open xenophobia might provide him with a useful model. It might yet. In the meantime, The Plague furnishes an appropriately absurd scenario for Trump and his audience, which is to say, us: somehow Oran’s municipal opera house is given license for weekly performances of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. In, what for me is the novel’s tragicomic highpoint, Camus describes a performance—just as Eurydice is taken back to Hades, the actor playing Orpheus “chooses this moment to stagger grotesquely to the footlights, his arms and legs splayed out” and, refusing to act in bad faith, collapses on stage in the manner of a plague victim.

The orchestra stops playing. The audience rises and slowly begins to exit (“like worshippers leaving church when the service ends”) then, seized with panic, stampedes for the doors, “pouring out into the street in a confused mass.” This hasn’t yet happened in Mar-a-Lago, but Iran got a taste when Iraj Harirchi, the head of the government task force on the coronavirus, began showing symptoms on TV. In the theater of our mediated lives, our hitherto diffident president’s televised admission that he has taken the test for COVID-19 is the first instance of such authenticity. Trump claimed to have tested negative. In future weeks, however, we may well notice his septuagenarian political rivals coughing into their elbows, if not seeking tests.

As states have begun postponing or canceling their primary elections, it’s only a matter of time before Trump fully realizes that his worst nightmare is a blessing in disguise. Quarantine may be an existential condition in The Plague, but it is a practical weapon in Panic. The movie’s key moment comes when Dr. Reed’s wife gives him justification to take the law into his own hands: “If there’s a plague here, you’re the most important man in town…” He is the leader. No one need vote, no election required.


J. Hoberman is the former senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author, most recently, of Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.