Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Richard Murphy, Daniel Fuchs, John Lee Mahin (uncredited), Philip Yordan (uncredited)
Based on a story by: Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt
Starring: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I‘ve long been a bit of a hypochondriac/germophobe. If anyone’s ill in my circle of family or friends I’m always terrified of catching something and try everything in my power to avoid contact or obsessively clean my hands any time I get close to them. As such, I’ve always found films about disease particularly disturbing. So a film like Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets plays into my fear as the best thrillers do.
The film opens with a group of unsavoury characters playing cards in a New Orleans bar. One of them looks rather unwell and wants to leave, but the others, including tough guy Blackie (Jack Palance) and his nervous accomplice Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel), think he’s putting it on to avoid paying what he owes. They chase him down when he does leave and end up killing the man and dumping him in the docks.
The authorities find the body the next morning and perform an autopsy. It seems pretty clear the man died of a gunshot wound, but the doctor discovers he actually had pneumonic plague. This is a highly infectious and fatal disease, so Lt. Commander Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service, is called in to handle the situation. He believes that the murderer is key to containing the situation as he was obviously in contact with the dead man and must have got his blood on him as he carried the body to the docks. So Reed figures he and the police have got 48 hours to figure out who the killer is before the plague spreads out of their control. Reed also believes the outbreak should be kept from public knowledge as they don’t want the murder to leave New Orleans in a panic. This controversial decision has some repercussions down the line though as Reed and the lead police officer on the case, Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) begin to crack the case.
This was what some consider a transitional film for Elia Kazan. Early in his career as a film director he was known largely for making more theatrical films, particularly due to his fame as a groundbreaking theatre director and co-founder of the Actor’s Studio. With Panic in the Streets however, he wanted to prove he could give his films more energy and realism through shooting on locations with a documentary-influenced style. Then, following this, he went on to make his most famous films, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden (with some other fairly successful titles in-between).
On top of the documentary influences on the style, the film also has the feel of a film noir in its high contrast lighting from the great DOP Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Pickup on South Street). These leanings even spread to the script which is full of hard-edged, tough dialogue. There’s a great use of locations too, with Kazan employing quite a lot of long takes, often containing some impressively dynamic camera work in key action scenes, particularly at the start and end of the film.
Speaking of action, the film is remarkably exciting given the era, and tensely gripping throughout. The only slower, slightly more superfluous scenes are those depicting Reed’s family life with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and young son. They’re a little dated and disrupt the pace a little, but flesh out the Reed character and some arguing between the couple and parenting issues offer a more realistic family dynamic than your typical apple-pie baking American 50s family.
Panic in the Streets was made and released before Kazan’s controversial naming of names during the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, but contains a similar leftist message of the importance of speaking out that infuses On the Waterfront. This gives the film an interesting political and historical subtext on top of the thrills too.
All in all I was very impressed by Panic in the Streets. Nicely shot, tense and exciting, it’s a fine noirish thriller, written and directed with a tough, realistic edge to keep it from feeling too dated.
Panic in the Streets is out now on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Signal One Entertainment. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the transfer is very good, given the film’s age, although it’s slightly on the soft side.
The only special feature of note is a commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. This is well researched and interesting, offering some great insight into the film.