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Lockdown Cinema

Staying frosty in plague times

On the Sunday before all London cinemas closed in March, I went to the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français in South Kensington for a rare screening of Chronicle of the Years of Fire, an Algerian film directed by Mohammed Lakhdar- Hamina, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1975. I went with my friend Mark Le Fanu, my most frequent cinema companion since 1980, and, despite a shared knowledge of cinema that is vast by any standard, we had never seen it. It came along nine years after Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterly The Battle of Algiers (1966), which most avid cinephiles will have seen. And while that film is much loved in Algeria for its sympathetic portrayal of the resistance movement in the capital city, Chronicle of the Years of Fire, a 177-minute epic directed by one of Algeria’s own, is even more greatly revered.

Spookily, a section of the film depicts the quarantining of a city in southern Algeria during a typhoid outbreak in the early years of World War II. We see the colonialists being driven out of the city in lorries, while the natives are forced to stay behind. These scenes are impressively shot and reminded me of the scenes in Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. (As with Soviet-era cinema, it’s amazing how many extras can be recruited by a state-sponsored production.)

For the peasant-protagonist, Ahmed, who loses his wife and children to the disease, it is just another link in a cycle of drought and famine exacerbated by the brutal French colonial regime under Marshal Pétain, so it’s no surprise that the indigenous people, even when enlisted in the French forces, are rooting for Hitler. This film, which has been restored by the Martin Scorsese Foundation, is not available on DVD, but since it is regarded as a national treasure it has been uploaded to YouTube by the Algerian Channel, so you can watch it free online.

On the night before Curzon closed its cinemas, I headed for the Curzon Soho and, along with two other patrons, caught a new Irish-British co-production, Calm With Horses, in which Cosmo Jarvis plays an ex-boxer who is now an enforcer for the Devers family, drug lords in a dead-end Irish seaside town.

At the same time, he is trying to connect with his autistic son, Jack, who is undergoing equine therapy, hence the title, and still has feelings for the boy’s mother. Barry Keoghan is convincing as a drug-addled, wannabe hard man, just out of his nappies, while David Wilmot is casually menacing as the venal and opportunistic Hector Devers, but it is Ned Dennehy who gives the most chilling performance as a small-time Celtic godfather, the Gollum-like Paudi Devers — possibly the scruffiest and seediest gang boss ever.

The plot twists, especially the pathos of the final death scene, are handled with aplomb. In light of Covid-19 the film’s producers brought forward its on-demand release to 27 April and you can watch it on Amazon, Curzon Home Cinema, and BFI Player, among other VOD platforms. Don’t miss it.

If you want to see a film which speaks to the present crisis you could watch Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), in which Richard Widmark plays Lieut Commander Clint Reed, a doctor with the US Navy’s Public Health Service, while Paul Douglas is police detective Capt Tom Warren. Together they go on the trail of a couple of criminals (played by Jack Palance, in his first movie role, and Zero Mostel) whom Widmark believes to be potential super-spreaders of pneumonic plague.

You will never again look at an old lady sitting in a chair and knitting without a degree of unease

Kazan delights in the atmosphere of the port city of New Orleans, to which he would return the following year with A Street Car Named Desire. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And it’s the only thriller I’m aware of about contact tracing. Or if you relish some low-budget paranoia you could watch George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), about a virus developed for combat purposes, given the innocuous-sounding name of Trixie, which has escaped from a crashed plane and infected a small town in Pennsylvania, sending some members of the population mad. A military force in hazmat suits is sent in to quell the disorder and to cover up this man-made disaster.

The suspense is based on our not knowing which character will succumb next and either die or go beserk. And you will never again look at an old lady sitting in a chair and knitting without a degree of unease.

Now that I am unable to get my cinema fix, I shall instead have to spend more time with my collection of DVDs, a couple of thousand in number. But where to start? Shall I concentrate on French, Iranian or Japanese? For those of you who have never acquired such a collection, I recommend you check out the British classics on the Talking Pictures TV channel (Freeview channel 81) or the combination of British and Hollywood classics on Sony Classic Movies (Freeview channel 50). There are also Mubi.com, an excellent, inexpensive subscription service which shows 30 world cinema titles per month, with a new one added every day, and the BFI Player.

As we self-isolate, perhaps you should recall what Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) says to his fellow soldiers in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) when faced with killer creatures: “Hey! I know we’re all in strung-out shape but stay frosty and alert. We can’t afford to let one of those bastards in here.” So, until next time, stay frosty!

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