Elia Kazan’s 1950 film noir, in which the noir element refers not to the darkness at the heart of humanity (or at least the female of the species) but instead a potential outbreak of pneumonic Black Death plague in New Orleans, Panic in the Streets is a balancing act between race-against-time melodrama (the incubation period for the exposed parties is roughly 48 hours and the mystery of the murdered Patient Zero’s identity isn’t helping the authorities) and proto-naturalistic Kazan flourishes (clumsy-albeit-ruthless blocking, loping, occasionally unfinished conversations, veracious location shooting) that almost give off the sense that his refusal to give his characters the full slate, cinematic “real time” to solve their dilemma is an act of cruelty. Standing in for (as well as personifying) the stylistic Molotov cocktail are Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas as, respectively, Dr. Clinton Reed, Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Public Health Service, and N.O.P.D. Captain Tom Warren. Assigned by the Mayor to work in tandem to apprehend whomever it was who shot the infected body, the gulf between their actorly sensibilities, with Widmark implosive resentment prefiguring Brando’s method sensationalism in Kazan’s next film and Douglas’s studied fury and hardboiled professionalism, is as potent as their hunt through the coastline shanties and flophouses. (The heterogenous chemistry between the two is more than matched on the flip side by antagonists Zero Mostel, the quivering jester of Off Broadway, and Jack Palance, whose matinee idol charisma practically in itself reads as shorthand for dastard-ism under Kazan’s Actors Studio mise-en-proscenium.) Though the events of the film threaten to bust wide open into chaos at every turn, Kazan’s execution of the narrative is as tidy and nontoxic as Reed’s endless supply of hypodermic inoculations he dispenses upon prying investigative testimonials from the film’s cast of vaguely union-minded dock grunts (imagine!), insipidly grinning Chinese ship cooks, and crusted-over formerly glamorous street dames. As tense and pulpy as Panic in the Streets manages to be, opening on a loopy high note when the stumbling plague carrier narrowly misses walking directly into a speeding train’s path, it still winds up in front of Dr. Reed’s homestead outdoor porch with his vanilla family waiting for him, played by TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents’s Barbara Bel Geddes and TV’s Lassie’s Tommy Rettig.
Fox's video transfer here is practically up to the level of their "Fox Studio Classics" line, with a nice, clean print of the film reproduced with an overwhelming amount of shadow and contrast. The sharpness isn't quite as stunning as can be found on many of Warner's recent vintage releases, but the monochromatic range almost makes up for it. For whatever reason, there are two audio options for the English soundtrack: single-channel mono and 2.0 stereo. The difference between the two is negligible to my ears (the stereo track is moderately louder than the mono), and I noticed very few directional effects that weren't forced-sounding.
Here's where the disc has a lot less in common with the usually stuffed "Fox Studio Classics," as there is only a theatrical trailer and a commentary track. The track, by film historians/authors James Ursini and Alain Silver, is quite insightful and thankfully recorded with the two in the same room, allowing a lot of byplay. It also brings viewers up to speed as to the film's place in Kazan's filmography. Also, they talk about the various acting styles at work in the film, but I swear I wrote about that element above before listening to the commentary track!
Kazan’s tense plague thriller reminds us all that Jack Palance’s skin needed to get all leathery later in life to prevent his ludicrously prominent cheekbones from piercing through.