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Panic In The Streets
cast: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel

director: Elia Kazan

93 minutes (PG) 1950
inD / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Panic In The Streets, made before some of Kazan's greatest and best-known films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East Of Eden (1955) is more modest but still impressive fare. Taken from the Oscar winning story Quarantine, Some Like 'Em Cold by Edna and Edward Anhalt, there's little of the powerhouse method acting in evidence that actors such as Brando and Dean brought to their roles a few short years later. That's not to say that this 'medical noir' is lacking fine moments or performances. Lead Richard Widmark, finding himself on the right side of the tracks for once, is excellent as hero Lieutenant-Commander Dr Clinton Reed, whilst in his debut role, Jack Palance as the venomous Blackie is superb. Bringing up the rear is a well cast Zero Mostel, sweaty and obsequious as the lily-livered stooge Fitch.

It opens in high noir style, a view along a dark street followed by a camera tilt upwards to a window, behind which is playing out a sleazy card game - an opening flourish which, along with some of the location shooting, anticipates some of the atmosphere Welles brought a decade later in Touch Of Evil. One of the players throws open the window; it's an appropriate action, serving as an introduction to the events within as well as literally opening up our first view of the underworld. Present at the game are Blackie, Fitch, and Vince Poldi (Tommy Cook). Poldi's cousin, an illegal immigrant, is sick, and Blackie takes exception to the man leaving his game while ahead. With his two accomplices the crook follows his victim through a stockyard and, in a dramatic sequence, murders him to regain his stake. Next day, Dr Reed from the US Public Health is at home with this wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) reflecting upon the economies forced upon his modest household. A call to the mortuary by an alert attendant soon gives him a whole new and far more serious headache: Poldi's cousin, newly fished out of the river, has been found - infected with plague. After battling with the authorities to impress them with the potential seriousness of the situation, Reed and a sceptical police captain (Paul Douglas) have a just a few hours to track down the accomplices of the murdered man and prevent a catastrophic epidemic...

Shot in high contrast black and white, Panic In The Streets benefits immensely from a strong cast as well as some fine location shooting in New Orleans. Scenes set in such places such as the mortuary, the crowded shipping office or amidst the peeling paint of 'Frank's Place' offer a unique, and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere, impossible to recreate in the studio. With these elements, Kazan's film shows the influence of Dassin's groundbreaking Naked City of two years earlier, which established the gritty, almost documentary style within the noir cycle. In fact, Widmark's previous role had been in Dassin's even finer Night And The City, a film in which a sense of rising panic was even more prevalent. Joe MacDonald, a favourite with the director, photographed Panic In The Streets' detailed environment. MacDonald also worked on Kazan's Pinky and Viva Zapata!, and went on to shoot Widmark again three years later in Fuller's masterpiece Pick Up On South Street.

As others have noticed, in a manner typical of some noir films, Kazan's work offers a contrast between the confusion, sickness and immorality of the streets with the modest, calm home life of the Reeds. But whereas (for instance) in Lang's The Big Heat (1953) the home life of the hero is destroyed by elements of vice surrounding the embattled central character - ultimately sending him back to work with an increased vigilance and sense of vengeance - Panic In The Streets places Reed's rising anxiousness within the confines of what amounts to just another working 'day'. Despite all the danger, ultimately he returns back to the bosom of his family justified and satisfied. The implication being that social balance has been restored, at least for the moment by his professionalism and curative skills.

That imbalance of course, has been created by crime and disease. The two are closely associated in this film. It reminds one of the tagline from the much cruder Cobra (1986) - where "Crime is the disease. Meet the cure," a neat analogy in context, if one which rings too uncomfortably of social reductionism. At its climax, as Blackie attempts to flee aboard ship, the visuals specifically allude to rats as being similar to criminals, both posing a menace to society's health. As (the presumably infected) Blackie prowls round the cheap rooms and the docks with his cronies, in search of something he suspects everyone is after, if without knowing exactly what it is, 'plague' and 'Blackie' resonate together in the audiences mind, adding further to connected associations. Ironically Blackie's hunch about Poldi's unfortunate cousin, that "he brought something in" of note is correct - even if, finally, its nothing he can sell or steal. Blackie's logical assumption that the police would not normally bother with the murder of some anonymous illegal immigrant has a ring of truth about it, and his so confusion is understandable.

Dr Reed, although home-loving, and on the side of society, is a true noir hero. Familiar to the genre is the chief protagonist as a man who walks alone, forced to travel beyond the limits of the law. In his way, Reed is forced to take morality into his own hands for the sake of society at large - a dimension of the film that is particulary apposite, given director Kazan's controversial personal history. The director testified before the infamous HUAC, naming suspected communists and fellow travellers. His film depicts suspects being hauled in for questioning, and the manhandling of the press, on the grounds that the overriding public good justified the means. These actions perhaps echo the director's sentiments at the time, presumably accepting the McCarthyite witch hunt and the suppression of civil rights it entailed in the light of presumed communist infiltration of the entertainment industry. In these times of terrorist threats and state response, such issues as they appear in the film are strikingly modern.

Standout scenes in the film include a notable scene where Blackie interrogates the dying Poldi as to the precise nature of his cousin's presumed contraband. Cat like, Blackie stalks his victim across the room, eventually preying over the doomed man's sick bed, holding Poldi's feverish head in his hands - a striking, evil cradling. It's a gesture emphasising the intimate nature of corruption, whether moral or physical. Apparently, the actors did many or all of their own stunts, which leads to some other, very dramatic scenes at the end, as the police and health authorities close in on the villains under the wharfs. Half crawling, half scrambling over the slippery timbers at the edge of the dock pool must have been an experience very uncomfortable for Palance, but it is sequence that adds immensely to the immediacy of it all.

Occasionally less convincing elements distract the viewer. Apparently Dr Reed is left to fight a potential national emergency little government backup. Perhaps just as astonishingly, he never inoculates himself - inviting a dramatic turn which never materialises. At the end of the film, too, the potential epidemic has been halted, all contactees located, a little too neatly. But these weaknesses are more than outweighed by the other satisfactions of a film that still makes for compulsive and relevant viewing today.
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