When Judge George Hatch saw the word "plague" on the keep case, he suspected a terrorist ruse. He opened it slowly and found neither bio-chemicals nor a bomb—just one firecracker of a film!
"With Panic in the Streets, Elia Kazan made the transition from a director of performances to a director of films. It is also a transitional film from '40s noir, which is characterized by selfish, greedy, and unattractive people, such as in Double Indemnity, to '50s noir that takes on larger social issues."—Commentators Alain Silver and James Ursini
As he did with Boomerang! (1947), director Elia Kazan filmed Panic in the Streets in a semi-documentary style. It was shot on-location in New Orleans; no sets were constructed, and Kazan used many of the city's residents for crowd scenes and small speaking roles. According to commentators Silver and Ursini "There were more non-professionals involved than real actors."
The trailer for Panic in the Streets promotes the film as an action/suspense thriller about preventing the spread of a nationwide biological epidemic. Reading between the lines, however, Panic in the Streets can be seen as an allegory about stopping the threat of Communism in the United States at the beginning of the Cold War.
Facts of the Case
A low-stakes poker game goes bad when a newcomer to the group, Kochak, claims the winnings and decides to leave because he isn't feeling well. Kochak is an illegal immigrant brought stateside by his cousin, Poldi (Guy Thomajan). Along with Fitch (Zero Mostel), Poldi is another toady under the thumb of Blackie (Jack Palance), a small-time crook. Blackie wants the money back, so the three chase Kochak to the waterfront, kill him, and toss the body off the dock.
When the dead man is discovered, a concerned mortician calls in Lt. Commander Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark, True Colors) of the U.S. Public Health Service. Reed confirms that the corpse is indeed infected with pneumonic plague, a deadly airborne virus that could turn into an epidemic within 48 hours. Everyone is immediately inoculated, except for the man—or men—who dumped the body. Working with New Orleans Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas, The Mating Game), Reed starts hunting down the killers.
Reed and Warren realize that a public announcement would not only spark a widespread panic but would scare the culprits into leaving New Orleans and possibly contaminate the entire country. Catching wind of the investigation, Blackie suspects that Poldi's cousin may have smuggled in some valuable contraband, possibly drugs or jewels. While Reed and Warren try to track the killers down, Blackie and Fitch start their own search for Poldi, exposing every person they question to this virulent plague.
After his stunning directorial debut in 1945 with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Elia Kazan felt confident enough to incorporate his own politically edged perspectives on American social issues. He delivered four more films in the true Hollywood tradition, including his Oscar-winning Gentleman's Agreement (1947) that dealt with anti-Semitism and Pinky (1949), which tackled rape, racial prejudice, and a young black woman (played by Jeanne Crain!) who could pass for white.
Both films premiered during the years that HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) was gearing up its witch-hunt for Communist infiltrators within the entertainment industry, and Kazan was beginning to feel the pressure. In 1932, he had been invited to join The Group Theatre, an American offshoot of The Moscow Art Theatre. In 1947, he co-founded The Actors Studio and continued to espouse the acting techniques pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavski. With these "Russkie" connections, Kazan realized that it was only a matter of time before he would become a prime target for a HUAC interrogation.
Perhaps Kazan was trying to fend off the inevitable by directing Panic in the Streets as a pre-apologia for his early flirtation with Communism. He takes the positive sides of both Lt. Clint Reed, the national military advisor, and Captain Tom Warren, the judicial arm of the local police force, both of whom want to stop a disease that threatens the entire country. Blackie and his crew are defined as uneducated lowlifes, who will resort to any means in order to retrieve that measly 200 bucks. Unwittingly, their questions pass along the plague (read: political beliefs), and, as a result, several people die (read: are converted to Communism).
Kazan conveniently introduces Neff, an investigative reporter representing the Constitutional Amendment for "Freedom of Speech." The public is entitled to know everything and should be allowed to make its own decisions. As Neff homes in on the details of the investigation, the conservative Police Chief Warren risks his career by having Neff unjustly sent to jail in order to prevent him from spreading the news with an incendiary Page-One headline.
Two years later, Kazan named names and quickly became one of the most despised people in the Hollywood community. Two actors from Panic in the Streets were blacklisted: Zero Mostel and Barbara Bel Geddes. Mostel made a few TV appearances in 1959 and 1960, but his first feature film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came over a decade and a half later in 1966. Ms. Bel Geddes continued to act on stage and in several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the famous "Lamb to the Slaughter." In 1957, Hitchcock cast her as the sympathetic "Midge" in the big-budgeted Vertigo.
Of course, Panic in the Streets still stands on its own as a suspenseful film noir. Silver and Ursini point out that all the elements are present. Clint Reed is an average working man trying to make ends meet and raise a family. Suddenly, he's thrust into a situation over which he has no control, and his world is turned upside down. As a public-health official, he becomes a noir-ish detective looking for answers. In the parallel storyline, the infected Blackie and Fitch are also trying find Poldi and uncover what valuables they suspect he might have smuggled in. Tension is maintained by limiting both searches within a 48-hour time limit.
The acting is topnotch all around. Richard Widmark (Night and the City, Pickup on South Street) as Lt. Clint Reed and Paul Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives) as Police Chief Warren start off on opposite sides of the fence. They argue over who should be in charge of the investigation, but as each adopts some of the other's traits and techniques, they quickly become a team, realizing what is at stake. Zero Mostel (The Producers) plays it soft and straight without resorting to any of his trademark shtick. Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo) has a small role as Clint's understanding and supportive wife.
In his first role, Jack Palance (The Big Knife) steals the show as Blackie. He's always on edge, planning and thinking fast, and keeping himself two steps ahead of everyone else. One of his most impressive scenes occurs near the end of the film, when he and Fitch find Poldi dying of the plague in bed. Blackie still believes that Poldi has double-crossed him and is hiding something. "We'll all share it. We'll split everything. Remember, I have the connections." He alternately hugs Poldi to his chest, sweet-talking him with promises of a better life, then, in a flash, his hands are around Poldi's throat as he tries to choke the information out of him. Palance makes these changes instantaneously, as his anger and frustration progressively mount.
The taut screenplay by Daniel Fuchs (Love Me or Leave Me) and Richard Murphy (The Desert Rats) was adapted from "Quarantine," a short story by Edna and Edward Anhalt. The film starts on the right note with Billie Holiday singing "Fine and Mellow," and Alfred Newman's jazzy score captures the flavor of New Orleans. Kazan (On the Waterfront) worked closely with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (Pickup on South Street), and together they created a series of astonishing, well-choreographed long takes. There's a brilliant 360-degree pan around Blackie when he's trapped in the middle of a dock rooftop. The scene opens with a long-shot of Blackie running toward the camera until his face fills the screen. Looking for a way out, he glances at the opposite end of the roof, but the police are coming from both directions. The camera follows his gaze, pulls back, and swirls around him, showing the river on one side and an even higher roof on the other. There's no way out, so he and Fitch kick out a small glass window, and, once inside a coffee warehouse, this leads to one of the most exciting and unique chase scenes you'll ever see.
Panic in the Streets is the third release in the "Fox Film Noir" series. The full-screen transfer looks spectacular with rich, solid blacks nicely offsetting the vivid whites and shades of gray. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sounds much better than the 2.0 faux stereo that carries an unwanted echoic effect. An informative commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini (co-editors of four Film Noir Readers) concentrates on the difficulties of working on-location in cramped quarters and awkward spaces, such as filming in a diner that is barely ten feet wide or under the docks where dozens of crossbeams support the upper level. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald is justly praised for imaginative solutions to these problems and his creative lighting techniques.
Silver and Ursini also call attention to images that would appear in other Kazan films, including the poker table in A Streetcar Named Desire and the docks, which were pivotal images in On the Waterfront. More importantly, they cite the specifics of Kazan becoming "a director of films" by singling out those complex long takes and scenes in which characters appear in depth, acknowledging the influence Orson Welles had on Kazan's directorial approach. Other than this commentary, the extras are rather sparse, including only the original theatrical trailer and four more for other films in this Fox noir series: Laura, Call Northside 777, The Street with No Name, and Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo, which was shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor.
If Panic in the Streets were remade in this era, it would, no doubt, be tied into current diseases and biological threats. In 1950, however, audiences came to see an arresting action movie. They certainly got their dime's worth…and more. Panic in the Streets is as relevant today as it was over five decades ago.
Not guilty! And there's no need to panic. This excellent film has spread to video outlets everywhere.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Authors and Film Historians James Ursini and Alain Silver
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