Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) is often referenced by film critics and historians as a ‘transitional piece’ – that’s code for saying it’s not as good as some of Kazan’s later directorial efforts. And while I must admit that there are some very fine elements sprinkled throughout this occasionally taut, and fairly engrossing drama – including some visual foreshadowing of the way Kazan would eventually shoot A Streetcar Named Desire a year later and aspects incorporated into his On The Waterfront (made in 1954), on the whole ‘Panic’ doesn’t quite hold our attention as it should; the threat of a citywide outbreak of pneumonic plague diffused, rather than enhanced by the static, and sometimes over the top draconian performances of Richard Widmark, Jack Palance and Paul Douglas.
Kazan’s penchant for extolling the virtues as well as the vices of the common – occasionally ‘less than’ common man is working overtime on Panic in the Streets, and not just with the hoodlum element. Yet the obviousness in the exercise is exacerbated with stereotypes instead of archetypes; hyperbole, pretext and cliché increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. The screenplay by Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs – part police procedural/part thriller/part drama, but with a decidedly anti-immigration slant, gets entangled in its rather lackluster last act; a high stakes ‘life or death’ premise dissolved into just another typical chase/race against time premised entertainment with woefully predictable consequences.
The story might have worked on a less superficial level had the villains been more genuinely menacing than thuggishly cruel, the hero aspiring to virtuousness instead of his somewhat vitriolic condemnation of authority figures he so obviously abhors yet clearly aspires to be more like in his chosen profession. The characteristic trappings of the basically good ‘family’ man – saddle bagged with an antiseptic wife (rather disappointingly played as pabulum by Barbara Bel Geddes) and all-American fresh faced kid (Tommy Rettig) wear thin almost from the beginning. Our hero is perhaps a man of conscience, one who is suddenly plunged into the middle of a life and career altering crisis that forces him to lead the ‘we shall overcome’ charge. But this really doesn’t suit Richard Widmark, an actor who began his movie career playing psychopathic killers and mentally deranged reprobates. There’s too much craftiness and cunning in Widmark for his Dr. Clinton Reed to be taken at face value as the congenial father/husband, and not enough spit and vinegar from his villainous counterparts to offset that level of expectation for another deliciously wicked performance by Widmark.
Jack Palance has never impressed me as an actor’s actor; his oddly shaped skeletal head barely covered by a mask of flesh and inexplicably having been plastered atop a rather athletic body; those beady eyes and angular jaw better suited for a Madam Tussaud’s House of Horrors wax mannequin than a living creature of flesh and blood. A lot of Palance’s ‘acting’ comes from ‘that look’. He just has trouble written all over him, ergo, there isn’t much else Palance needs to do to convey danger. Regrettably, there’s precious little that Palance embellishes as small time racketeer/gambler, Blackie who struts about the rat-infested back alleys of a rather filthy and nondescript New Orleans in tailored suits cut to exaggerate his broad shoulders and narrow waist.
Palance might have had more cache as the villain of Panic in the Streets had his cronies not been such a bumbling lot of ineffectual fops and fancies; Zero Mostel as Raymond Fitch, the neurotic and dandified fat man with a bad comb over, who bungles just about every errand Blackie sends him on, and, Poldi (Guy Thomajan), the nondescript foreigner who hasn’t the brain power to run a flashlight battery, yet possesses enough greed to attempt stealing money from the hand that’s been feeding his gambling addictions. Palance’s Blackie is an enterprising goon. So why has he surrounded himself with these unimpressive cheats, liars and absolute morons? One could argue that, having crawled out of the same muck and mire Blackie is inherently resistant to employing anyone who might attempt a similar escape at his expense – replacing his authority with an ironfisted rule of their own. But in choosing Fitch and Poldi as his accomplices Blackie has placed himself in even more perilous circumstances; to be run out of town by forces without rather than within; his enemies as yet unseen and unknown to him because of these squandered alliances.
If the criminal element in the film seems awash in indecisiveness, it pales by comparison to the quagmire of red tape impeding Reed’s investigation of a body fished out of the river by police containing traces of pneumonic plague. The body is Kochak (Lewis Charles); Poldi’s cousin who illegally entered the country as a stowaway aboard the Nile Queen – a rusty trawler moored off the coast. Already begun to succumb to the fever and delirium of the plague Kochak left one of Blackie’s poker games prematurely – that is to say, before he had lost all his money in the crooked fix. Hunted down by Poldi, Fitch and Blackie – in a fairly impressive opener done in two long takes across an eerily lit stockyard and railway terminal, the end of the line for Kochak is not the plague but a pair of bullets from Blackie’s gun.
Presumably dumped by Poldi and Fitch, Kochak’s body is sent to the morgue where Kleber (George Ehmig) discovers some bizarre tissue samples that lead him to telephone Reed for more definitive autopsy results. After concurring with a diagnosis of pneumonic plague Reed calls a meeting of the city council to discuss the possibility of quarantine. He is met with immediate opposition from police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) who has held a grudge against doctors ever since his late wife was misdiagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. But Mayor Murray (H. Waller Fowler Jr.) takes the matter to heart and immediately reacts by setting into motion a series of precautions to spare the city any undue panic, while urging Warren to assist in Reed’s investigation in any way that his department can.
Reed’s first course of action is to inoculate everyone who has come into immediate contact with the infected body. But he resists Warren’s suggestion to leak the story to the press – particularly Neff (Dan Riss) an overzealous newshound - for fear that many will flee in response and therefore risk spreading the plague beyond the city limits. In a scene reminiscent of the ‘round up the usual suspects’ scenario in Casablanca, Warren and his men corral and begin to interview Slavic immigrants after determining that Kochak was of Armenian/Czech descent. Fitch nervously denies ever seeing the man and then quickly takes off to mistakenly warn Blackie that the police are on an aggressive manhunt – presumably for Kochak’s killer.
Reed and Warren continue to butt heads; Reed accusing Warren of being lackadaisical in his appreciation of the situation while Warren suggests that Reed is exploiting it to advance his own career ambitions. Acting on a hunch that Kochak entered the U.S. by sea illegally Reed hands out his mug shot at the National Maritime Union hall and is later contacted by a young woman who leads him to a seaman named Charlie (Wilson Bourg Jr.). With great reluctance, Charlie points Reed to the Nile Queen. Immediately recognizing the repercussions of having aided and abetted an illegal into the U.S., the ship’s captain, Beauclyde (Emile Meyer) at first angrily orders Reed and Lt. Paul Gafney (Paul Hostetler) of the Public Health Department off his vessel. But when the crew learns of their purpose they freely admit to Kochak having been aboard, especially since at least one other crew member has since died of the plague – and was tossed overboard – and several more are now showing signs of being infected. Reed also learns that Kochak boarded the Nile Queen at Oran and was fond of Shish kebobs.
Following yet another hunch Reed and Warren begin to canvas the city’s Greek restaurants. At one such establishment they speak with the proprietor John Mefaris (Alexis Minotis) who, after shown Kochak’s picture, lies about having come in contact with the man even though his wife Rita (Aline Stevens) is already sick. When Rita dies in the squalor of their apartment, Reed realizes he’s been lied to and confronts John who tells him Kochak’s name, as well as the name of the friend he came into the restaurant with – Poldi. In the meantime, Blackie has learned that Poldi stole money from Kochak that belonged to him, using some of it to furnish a good time with a woman. By now in the late stages of plague and weak and fearful for his life, Poldi temporarily escapes Blackie and Fitch with the aid of his younger cousin, Vincent (Tommy Cook). Blackie is not too concerned, telling Fitch that Poldi has nowhere to hide. Keeping a low profile at the Laundromat he uses as his cover, Blackie orders Fitch to keep his suspecting wife, Angie (Mary Liswood) quiet and at bay.
So far the city’s inhabitants know absolutely nothing about this pathogenic bacterial threat. But Neff has figured out the sketchy details for himself, confronting Reed and Warren with his findings and threatening to break the story in the newspapers. Instead, Warren puts his career on the line, using his authority to place Neff under arrest in order to stop the story from getting out. Blackie arrives at Poldi’s apartment in a feeble attempt to learn the whereabouts of Kochak’s smuggled goods. On the brink of death, Poldi reveals nothing and Blackie – finally suspecting that Poldi’s illness is not an act - calls in a doctor. As Fitch and Blackie attempt to move Poldi from his room Reed arrives. Panicked, the pair tosses Poldi over the bannister and flee from Reed to the docks. During the ensuing chase, Warren wounds Blackie, thus preventing him from killing Reed. Blackie then accidentally shoots Fitch while trying to escape to a nearby ship. Exhausted, presumably from the onset of plague, Blackie collapses in the water, is captured and placed under arrest. Having contained the threat of citywide outbreak, Reed returns home to his welcoming family.
Overall, Panic in the Streets is an irreverently pedestrian affair. One wonders why Kazan and Fox chose to shoot the film in New Orleans. None of the locations in the movie speak to that Cajun/bayou imagery generally associated with ‘the big Easy’. Without the characters readily reminding us that we are, in fact, in New Orleans one can just as easily assume the setting to be the slums of New Jersey, New York or Chicago. Kazan clearly relishes scraping off the crust and filth off his villainous characters, but seems incapable of making them anything more than cartoon cutouts in the final reels.
His construction is off too. It takes far too long to get the story off the ground, and even when the piecemeal suspense begins to churn Kazan feels the urge to infrequently interrupt it with vignettes of quaint domesticity inside the Reed household; as in the scene where Reed and wife, Nancy debate whether Tommy should have a quarter ahead of his allowance to go to the movies with his friends. Perhaps these sequences are meant to reinforce for the audience Richard Widmark as the ‘good guy/family guy/hero’ of the story. Indeed, such sequences reveal a more tender side to Widmark’s acting style, something his character’s interaction with virtually all of the others in this film is denied. As such Widmark’s performance becomes very Jekyll and Hyde; ping-ponging between these bipolar opposites and leaving the audience satisfied by neither.
When Kazan is able to grasp the elements of suspense head on he delivers a fairly nail-biting thriller that at least seems to be steering toward greatness. But each time this narrative arc is diffused the results are the same; deflating the necessary edginess to carry off the plot to its inevitable conclusion. The plague is always on the fringe of a calamitous outbreak. But it never becomes a city-wide threat. The villains are unscrupulous, yet regrettably never venomously cruel and therefore hardly threatening. The heroics of Reed, Warren and the institutions dedicated to law and order are woefully archaic and incapable of reaction that seems either valiant or even satisfying. When Reed saves the day his reward is a good night’s rest and a return to refinishing the cabinet he and Tommy had begun restoring with a fresh coat of paint before he received this assignment. The entire ‘hail the conquering hero’ ‘return to normalcy’ denouement is dealt short shrift; present and accounted for, but just barely. In the final analysis, Panic in the Streets isn’t so much a ‘panic’ as it becomes a ‘pandemic’ of tedium, invariably shaken from its boredom, though never quite enough to make us genuinely care about the story or the characters.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is a marginal improvement on the previously released DVD from 2004. The B&W image appears ever so slightly brighter than its DVD counterpart with solid contrast levels improved by the Blu-ray’s obviously higher bit rate. But we don’t really see a leap in overall crispness or refinement of film grain. Is grain present? Yes. Does it look to have been tampered with using DNR? Possibly. Does the image look as it should or did during the film’s theatrical run? Debatable, though I suspect not. If anything, the Blu-ray retains the ever so slight soft look of the DVD. Fine detail is wanting throughout. This is a new 1080p scan so one can only assume the hi-res image is in keeping with John MacDonald’s original cinematography, although I do have to insist that overall something just seems to be wanting in this transfer. The most noticeable improvement is the removal of age related dirt and scratches that were, at times, glaringly obvious on the DVD. The audio is 2.0 DTS mono but adequate. As if to encourage a repurchase of this title, Fox rounds out the extra features with a pair of vintage biographies; one on Jack Palance, the other on Ricahrd Widmark. We also get the expert audio commentary from James Ursini and Alain Silver – a direct port over from the DVD.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)