One night in the New Orleans slums, vicious hoodlum Blackie and his friends kill an illegal immigrant who won too much in a card game. Next morning, Dr. Clint Reed of the Public Health Service confirms the dead man had pneumonic plague. To prevent a catastrophic epidemic, Clint must find and inoculate the killers and their associates, with the reluctant aid of police captain Tom Warren, despite official skepticism, and in total secrecy, lest panic empty the city. Can a doctor turn detective? He has 48 hours to try...
Richard Widmark ... Lt. Cmdr. Clinton 'Clint' Reed M.D.
Paul Douglas ... Capt. Tom Warren
Barbara Bel Geddes ... Nancy Reed
Jack Palance ... Blackie (as Walter Jack Palance)
Zero Mostel ... Raymond Fitch
Dan Riss ... Neff - Newspaper Reporter
Tommy Cook ... Vince Poldi - Younger Brother
This is listed as a "film noir," a gangster film and I suppose it, is but it plays more like just a straight drama. It's the story of an immigrant who is infected with the pneuomic plague (but "bubonic," as listed on the back of the VHS cover) and the race to discover all the people he had come in contact with, including a criminal (Jack Palance) and his gang.
The great black-and-white cinematography helps put it in the film-noir category, I imagine, but the story still takes precedence over the stark photography here. The angular-faced Palance, listed as "Walter Jack Palance" in here, always makes for a good villain and Zero Mostel was an interesting part of his group.
Richard Widmark played an normal intense role, except this time as a good guy, and Barbara Bel Geddes was her normal wholesome character. Despite third billing, she didn't have as many lines as I would have preferred to hear. Frankly, I prefer Widmark as the crazy-type villain. He spends much of the time in this film as a frustrated doctor, yelling at the cop Paul Douglas. That gets tiresome after awhile.
It's a grim story: not a whole lot of laughs here, but it's entertaining and moves fast......and the ending chase scene is a knockout! A good addition to anyone's collection of classic films, whatever you want to label it.
Panic In The Streets 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.
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 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 particularly 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.
"Panic in the Streets" is a fairly unknown little movie from director Elia Kazan and was made before his classic masterpieces such as "A Streetcar Named Desire", "On the Waterfront" and "East of Eden". Kazan already won an Oscar in 1947, before this movie, so he was not a completely unknown at the time. Still "Panic in the Streets" is mostly a movie that passed under the radar.
The great thing about this movie is the Oscar winning script. It has a very good concept and its excellent tense thriller material with a sniff of crime/film-noir elements. The dialog in this movie is also absolutely magnificent and gives the movie a feel of reality and credibility.
The cast is fairly unknown (especially at the time it was released) but it still features Zero Mostel and Jack Palance in one of their first movie roles. Especially Palance impresses as the tough gangster boss, with a very powerful looking face.
Still the movie drags a little at some points. The movie starts of very well but after the start the movie slows down and does not always makes the right decisions in terms of pace and the point of view the story is told from.
Yet, "Panic in the Streets" remains a perfectly watchable movie, mainly due to its solid script and powerful dialog that makes the movie a believable one to watch. For fans of the thriller genre this is a great movie to watch.