Panic in the Streets

Panic in the Streets

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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.

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DVD
Distributor
20th Century Fox
Runtime
96 min
Rating
NR
Year
1950
Director
Elia Kazan
Screenwriter
Richard Murphy, Daniel Fuchs
Cast
Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, Dan Riss, Tommy Rettig, Tommy Cook, Guy Thomajan, H. Waller Fowler Jr.