You can count on Glenn Ford to bring his A-game to a B-picture. While never reaching the top tier of stardom he had been a box office stalwart in the 1950s until gradually losing his marquee touch in the early 1960s.
This is an odd one, with some nods at Wages of Fear (1953) and any picture that involved a trek or featured a hooker with a heart of gold. The story was certainly unusual – rabies. And the idea of a resulting pandemic will resonate more now than it did then. But it takes quite a long time for the key storyline to emerge, which is just as well because it allows Glenn Ford (Experiment in Terror, 1962) time to turn in one of his best characterisations.
Generally, Ford was Mr Dependable, very capable of holding his own and meting out punishment to anyone who crossed the line. So, this is as far from typecasting as you can get.
Dr Reuben (Glenn Ford) is a washed-up alcoholic working in a flyblown mining pitstop in Mexico, riddled with guilt at the death of wife and child. So when a posse of prostitutes turns up, he’s last in the queue, possibly his disinterest the attraction for Perla (Stella Stevens). By the time he realises he’s contracted rabies, he’s up against the clock, 48 hours to reach a town with an antidote, but still a baby to deliver, a jeep that has to cross a rickety bridge and then runs out of gas, so that, once linked up again with Perla and helped by Pancho, he has to cross mountain and desert to reach safety.
Logic isn’t in much evidence here. Despite knowing he has contracted the disease, he still delivers a baby and then spends most of the final 36 hours in the company of Perla and Pancho (David Reynoso), not to mention that the Mexican has abandoned his wife, who has just given birth in a shack, in order to accompany the doctor, or that the doc finds his way onto a bus loaded up with kids (presumably they are immune).
Not to mention that with a jeep running out of gas surely the last thing you’d want is to weight it down with passengers. And with a budget that’s not going to cater for a proper runaway bus that sequence falls back on the old speeded-up film. And if you’re going down the line of a rickety bridge, do it once, don’t repeat it.
But then you wouldn’t have anyone on hand to deliver philosophic lines, or to start to fall in love (wih Perla, you understand, not Pancho).
Take away the illogicality and there is still quite enough that works. The driver of the hooker truck unceremoniously jacks up his load to dump them in the town. A woman is tied to a table in preparation for giving birth. A suspected rabies victim is dragged through the streets by rope. The hunt for gas leads them to drain oil lamps. There’s a very self-aware Perla, more than enough common sense for both of them. She knows exactly what she has become and that’s something for which there ain’t no cure. But there are a couple of beautifully-wrought scenes that would allow Reuben and Perla to express their true feelings if either was capable of letting go, and you won’t see more expressive fingers.
And the clock running down also means that the symptoms are building up. Reuben’s senses are heightened. Light is too bright, sounds deafening, and if the doctor is already too ill he won’t be able to drink from a waterfall.
Every now and then director Gilberto Gazcon – who hadn’t made a picture in four years since La Risa de la Ciudad (1962) and wouldn’t make another for three years – chucks in a cinematic morsel, the camera whizzing around or racing back, to show Reuben’s state of mind. But, honestly, he needn’t have bothered.
You hire Glenn Ford and you get everything through his eyes, maybe a sly tensing of his features or a gesture from time to time, but this is one actor – mostly under-rated – who is just rock solid when it comes to displaying character. So when he’s not trying to save himself, dashing from one scheme to the next, he’s flat out trying to stop himself going mad, and only pausing for a bit of reflection as Perla tries to inject some meaning into his life.
Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968) ain’t that gold-hearted she’s going to let men treat her like dirt, she hands out a couple of good thumpings, but in her world you’re not going to come across any men who aren’t pure predatory, and it’s a shock for her to meet someone who thinks a woman can’t be bought. This is a rounded character – tough but vulnerable, and surprisingly tender should the opportunity arise.
Definitely a mixed-bag and a bit more work on the screenplay would not have gone amiss but top-drawer performance from Glenn Ford.