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PANIC IN THE STREETS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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

"If the killer is incubating pneumonic plague, he can start spreading it within forty-eight hours!"

Film ***1/2

Film 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.

Today, 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.

The 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.

Today, 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?

With 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.

Panic 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.

Fitch 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 New Orleans.

The 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 loser.

Panic 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 most entertaining.

Video ***

Panic 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.

Audio **1/2

Panic 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.

Features **

Panic 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.

There 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.

Summary:

There's nothing quite like a good plague to scare people witless, as in Panic in the Streets.  This solid effort from director Elia Kazan, set within a film noir milieu to spectacular effect, foreshadows today's health concerns over biological hazards and is itself a prime example of the visual and visceral appeal of film noir.

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