PANIC IN THE STREETS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel
Director: Elia Kazan
Audio: English 1.0 mono, 2.0 stereo, Spanish 1.0 mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Commentary, trailers
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: March 15, 2005
the killer is incubating pneumonic plague, he can start spreading it within
noir has been around since the 1940's. Influenced
in equal parts by German expressionism, Italian neorealism, and the American
gangster picture of the 1930's, this popular genre has sensationalized the
pessimistic, shady underworld of criminals and flawed heroes.
Early examples of these films tended to feature themes involving greed
and avarice, with heroes or femme fatales who were morally unattractive people.
Film noir of the 1950's, however, shifted more towards social issues.
These kinder, gentler films offered larger casts and more location shoots
and were perhaps influenced by the advent of the nuclear family.
Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets
(1950) is a prime example of the latter style of film noir, placing an emphasis
less on individual gain and more on the health and social ramifications of mass
hysteria in face of a possibly cataclysmic disaster.
Elia Kazan is best-remembered for such films of social commentary.
His Gentleman's Agreement
touched upon race issues, while On the Waterfront confronted working-class injustices.
However, Kazan did experiment with other genres, and Panic
in the Streets represents a transitional point in Kazan's career, signaling
a move away from the stagy, theatrical films of his early career towards a more
gritty and visual style. Indeed,
among his films, Kazan listed Panic in the
Streets as a personal favorite.
film clearly demonstrates Kazan's regular flair for casting extras with an
authentic look to them. By
populating his films with such non-professionals, Kazan created a greater
ambiance of reality in his films. Panic
in the Streets is no exception, offering a melting pot of blue-collar
working class shippers and seamen, lowlifes and two-bit crooks.
The film, in this sense, foreshadows Kazan's later On
the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named
Desire with its emphasis on the grime and dirt of inner city life.
this film has an almost prescient quality to it. Embracing aspects of the crime thriller and police
procedural, this film is also a morality play on paranoia and potential mass
hysteria when a deadly contagion is released unawares upon an unsuspecting
public. The film opens when a
bullet-ridden corpse turns up at the New Orleans docks one morning.
It is initially dismissed as yet another anonymous John Doe in a dreary
succession of similarly unknown homicide victims in the typical big city
environs. However, when a public
health physician, Dr. Clinton Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service (Richard
Widmark), discovers to his horror that the corpse carries a highly virulent
strain of bubonic plague, the situation becomes much graver.
Was the corpse a victim of the usual nefarious underworld foul-play or of
the dreaded disease itself? More
ominously, was the corpse possibly a test subject and a harbinger of a
maliciously-planned epidemic in the near future?
far too few clues available to them, the police must hastily mobilize in a
frantic citywide search not only to discover the identity of the unknown man and
his assailants but also to inoculate anyone who may have come into contact with
this dead man. It is a tense and
taut race against time, an unknown adversary, and the deadly plague itself.
Assigned to assist the good doctor in his advisory capacity is Captain
Warren (Paul Douglas), a crack detective on the police force.
Together, they must endeavor to isolate and quarantine all exposed
persons before an epidemic breaks out. Time
is of the essence, for within 48 hours, the health officials may be no longer
able to contain the plague.
in the Streets
scrambles along at a desperate pace as the police drag in half the two-bit
hoodlums in town for questioning. Caught
within this dragnet is one Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel), a lowly scumbag with a
propensity for chronic lying. Fitch
not only knows the true identity of the dead man, Kochak, but was himself
involved in Kochak's death. In
fact, in the film's crackerjack opening sequence, we learn how Fitch, Poldi (the
dead man's cousin), and the vicious Blackie (Jack Palance) murder Kochak for
that basest of reasons - money. Unbeknownst
to them, however, Kochak was a carrier of the bubonic plague, and his dying,
departing gift to his assassins was to transmit the disease to them.
gets released without any fanfare. It
is just one of many agonizingly close but missed opportunities for the lawmen,
and scenes such as this only add to the ever-increasing tension of the film.
In this sense, Panic in the Streets
is sensationalist fare at its finest, chronicling the struggle between
underworld sleaze and public officials. Blackie
and his cronies misread the doctor's good intentions, believing the citywide
manhunt to be because of Kochak's murder, although that is only of secondary
concern to the lawmen. Nevertheless,
the crooks' fears spur them into preparations to flee the city, a truly dire
consideration whose consequence - widespread epidemic - is nearly too terrible
to contemplate. Dr. Reed and the
lawmen must apprehend these men at all costs, as the early tell-tale signs of
infection or death have already begun to appear in the city.
With non-stop tension, this riveting crime thriller proceeds in
breathtaking fashion towards an explosive finale that tears through the docks of
cast in Panic in the Streets is solid
all around. Richard Widmark,
formerly a film villain who at the time was undergoing an image makeover into
heroic leading man, is quite solid as the determined and unyielding Dr. Reed.
Paul Douglas, a humorous actor in an uncommon dramatic role, is the
epitome of the tough-as-nails cop with no time for funny business.
Palance, in his film debut, makes a strong impression as the rat-like and
animalistic Blackie, rather appropriate considering that Blackie himself becomes
a carrier of the plague. Barbara
Bel Geddes, who portrays Dr. Reed's dutiful wife, would soon become an
accomplished stage actress and, despite limited on-screen time here, gives a
mesmerizing performance in the film's quieter interludes.
Today, she is best-remembered as the lovelorn seamstress from Hitchcock's
Vertigo, although H.U.A.C.
blacklisting shortened her film career. This was also the case for Zero Mostel, an eventual Broadway
mega-star making an early, pre-stardom film appearance as Blackie's sidekick
in the Streets
possesses a docudrama style that makes its lurid subject matter seem altogether
plausible. Vastly superior to such
modern-day apocalyptic dreg as Outbreak
or Virus, Kazan's film is a prime
example of how a master director, even within the confines of a limited budget
or the genre parameters of the film noir, can create a truly gripping movie.
Panic in the Streets may not
even be Kazan's best film, but it is certainly pulp fiction and film noir at its
in the Streets
is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.
The dual-layer transfer averages around 6-7 Mbps (although the finale
hits a whopping 9 Mbps or more) and is generally clean and detailed.
Black and white contrast levels are quite excellent.
Only minor flaws - scratches and dust specks from time to time - detract
from the viewing and serve as a reminder of the film's age.
in the Streets
can be heard in its original English 1.0 mono or a new 2.0 stereo.
An optional Spanish 1.0 mono is available, too.
Dialogue is mostly up-front and centered.
Hiss and background noise are kept in moderation.
The jazzy and incredibly exciting score by Alfred Newman is particularly
effective and helps not only to reinforce the ambiance of the film's New Orleans
backdrop but also to enhance the gripping tension of the overall story.
in the Streets
is the third entry in the on-going Fox Film Noir series.
Aside from several theatrical trailers, the only other feature on this
disc is a commentary track by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver.
It is quite a good commentary track, too, as both men banter in an
animated tag-team style that is loose and relaxed yet simultaneously
informative. Topics touched upon
include Elia Kazan's career and the remarkable visual style of this film with
the nuances in its stylistic composition, highly-fluid long takes, and
subtleties that enrich the complexity and faux-reality ambiance of each scene.
The men also discuss characteristics of the film noir genre itself,
particularly the differences between 1940's and 1950's noir.
are five trailers included on this disc. In
addition to the trailer for Panic in the
Streets, other archival trailers offer vintage looks at Laura,
Call Northside 777, the exotic Cinemascope film House
of Bamboo, and the sensationalist cops-and-robbers film The
Street with No Name. All of
these films are current or future entries into the Fox Film Noir series.