Panic in the Streets
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A half-century or more, noir has become one of America's signature, over-familiar vocabularies, but if today the genre's dark streets, Venetian blinds, rumpled raincoats and pudgy handguns are too clichéd for reuse, the films themselves, restored and showing on TCM and coming out on DVD (when many other, less resonant mid-century "hits" remain in the vault), always appear newly fresh, startlingly energetic and passionately tragic. But they often appear to have this resonance only in toto - noirs mean a great deal as a Zeitgeist, but often not that much as individual films. We'll often sit down to a grade-B Lizabeth Scott or Edmund O'Brien film without hopes for a masterpiece, but only the desire to taste another thin slice of American cinema's richest genre pie.
It's not a concession we have to make with Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950), which is substantially more than a noir programmer, or even the "issue" film any synopsis of the film will suggest. Although it's essentially a police procedural - with an epidemiological MacGuffin at its center - it's also one of the wisest, most convincing, most enthrallingly detailed portraits of American life ever produced in the pre-New Wave era. Shot on location in New Orleans, the film follows Richard Widmark's Public Health Service officer in his desperate efforts to trace the roots and spread of pneumatic plague before it slips the leash of circumstance and hits the country at large. It's a tense thriller, but Kazan's sharp-eyed attendance to the physicality of chases and procedural difficulty - echoed eloquently in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) - is just the framework. It's the film's human furniture and clutter that's breathtaking.
Kazan, so hot in the late '40s it's a wonder he had time to sleep, had already made five films and won an Oscar®. But nothing in his celebrated filmography - not even On the Waterfront (1954) four years later - attains the nuance, variety of texture, and unpredictable rhythms of Panic. We begin with a waterfront card game, from which a feverish Greek immigrant stumbles away, pockets incidentally full of winnings his co-players (underground badass Jack Palance, porcine lackey Zero Mostel, sweaty hood Guy Thomajan) are not happy with. They kill him, loot him and dump him, and the dominoes start falling. Widmark's family man is called in, diagnoses the body as a plague carrier, and faces an impossibility: Head off the spread of the disease by finding the killers, with no evidence to go on. Keep the press at bay. Force the local police (led by skeptical chief Paul Douglas) to scour the city.
Using a script that had up to six sets of handprints on it (including those of script machine Philip Yordan), Kazan set about painting a roiling, tempestuous portrait of the city, using scores of locals and filling every corner of the film with genuine launches of hypnotic street business. Those four seamy card players cue us in - particularly after the three lowlifes chase the sick man across a field, over train tracks (around a moving train), to warehouse loading areas and finally an alley for the showdown, a long traveling shot that tells us that the film's canvas will be broad. But starting with the relaxed coroners' lunch-plan conversation over the corpse, we sense it'll be dense and believable, too. With or without Widmark, the movie visits coffee shops, bars, gambling pits, French Quarter shanty towns, cargo ships, lice-ridden flophouses, busy warehouses and processing plants, all of it dead real and complex, not simplified for the movie's convenience. The upshot is a picture of New Orleans as a slippery hot bed of off-the-boat risk, chaos and transient mystery, emphasized by the odd fact that there's almost no noticeable Southern accent anywhere in sight....in a film filled with locals! Instead, amid the leads' New Yawk yappings, we get a tapestry of immigrant voices, Chinese, Greek, Irish, Mexican, Italian, as if the rundown port city itself is comprised only of foreigners on their way to somewhere else.
Kazan's way with actors is more visible here than with, say, Actor's Studio vets like Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Locating the casual mojo in every bit of dialogue, he gets convincing particulates out of the amateurs as well as the grab bag of pros, almost all of whom arguably deliver their career best. (Though indelible here as a sweaty, desperate child-man, perhaps only Mostel upstaged himself later.) The modulated tête-à-tête between frazzled and frustrated hubby Widmark, home for an hour and shedding his contaminated clothes in the garage, and wife Barbara Bel Geddes, who can't risk getting near, might just be the most adult and stirringly real marital argument in Hollywood history. Certainly, watching Mostel and Palance engage in a crazy sparring battle of acting styles is like watching dinosaurs wrestle, but everyone, from a Chinese cook (H.T. Tsaing), an Irish newsie dwarf (Pat Walshe) and a corrupt ship's captain (Emile Meyer), to a Greek restaurant-owning husband and wife (Alex Minotis and Aline Stevens), and innumerable cops and city workers, has moments of surprising authenticity and power.
Panic in the Streets does, in fact, run the risk of diminishing all but a handful of standard noirs, merely by virtue of its grown-up sensibility, its fastidious naturalism, and its refusal to indulge in Hollywood short-cuts and easy answers. Seen freshly today, it easily outdoes, for at least this critic, all of Kazan's more famous powerhouses, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront, East of Eden (1955) and even Splendor in the Grass (1961). Famous for great "Method" showboating performances and rarely lauded for visual acumen, in Panic Kazan had the mixture in reverse, shooting his pulp story with an edgy fluency that could've made Joseph H. Lewis jealous, and shepherding a vast ensemble cast toward a quiet realism no one else knew from in 1950.
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Richard Murphy; Daniel Fuchs (adaptation); Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt (story); John Lee Mahin, Philip Yordan (contract writer, uncredited)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford; Lyle R. Wheeler (as Lyle Wheeler)
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Richard Widmark (Lt. Cmdr. Clinton 'Clint' Reed M.D.), Paul Douglas (Capt. Tom Warren), Barbara Bel Geddes (Nancy Reed), Jack Palance (Blackie), Zero Mostel (Raymond Fitch), Dan Riss (Neff - Newspaper Reporter), Tommy Cook (Vince Poldi - Younger Brother).
by Michael Atkinson