Panic in the Streets (1950, Elia Kazan)
You can keep On the Waterfront, can tuck A Streetcar Named Desire away (though it’s much better), and you can certainly stuff Gentleman’s Agreement, but Panic in the Streets? Hard to believe it’s even the work of the same man; this feels deserving of the praise I’ve heard my whole life lobbed in the direction of Elia Kazan, leaps and bounds above his most widely recognized classics, including his two Best Picture winners. It doesn’t hurt that it’s an entirely different beast — a conscious, frantic, all too plausible thriller about an outbreak of pneuomonic plague in New Orleans, stemming from the criminal underworld on up to the risk of a widespread epidemic. Gripping and stark, it’s a rather beautiful embodiment of universal fears filtered through the paranoia of its era. Fittingly, given its director’s pedigree, it also never forgets that a crisis like the one it imagines happens to people… and it lets us know them.
Even though it’s a nail-biting thriller with gangster-film elements, a time capsule of New Orleans, and a quintessential noir, it’s surprisingly modern in its specific race-against-the-clock terror, with a responsible but cocky hero (Richard Widmark as Public Health doctor Reed) trying to rapidly turn the tide against skepticism that an unidentified body is infected and that his identity — and the identity of those he came into conact with — must be known, and a quiet inoculation must proceed to prevent hysteria. (Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is practically a remake.) Reed can only do so much to forage his way through bureaucracy to make local governments and law enforcement spring into action on the issue, and the mysterious attention cast upon this lifeless body may not cause panic among the general public but does raise the suspicions of local mobster Blackie (Jack Palance), who believes the dead man was smuggling valuables.
Kazan wisely concentrates much of his time on the intricacy and quiet intensity of people doing their best at their job and trying to avoid, unlike the film, the attendant grimness of it all. Reed’s uneasy partnership with police captain Warren (Paul Douglas) is believable and effective, but the alliance only comes after each is sure of the other’s integrity, demonstrated most memorably when Reed takes matters into his own hands and trolls around union offices, cargo ships and bars looking for any secondhand knowledge of the dead man. This leads the investigation to a Greek restaurant, where things quickly become bleak for all concerned, while Blackie begins to suspect his sidekick Poldi of a part in this nefarious imagined plot against him — little suspecting that Poldi too is infected with the plague and will soon die, phony doctors or no phony doctors. All the while, the crooks are unaware of the cogs in the system turning not to corner them but to protect them, to protect everyone, even with the interference of journalists, politicians, and eventually, even a pregnancy. The movie is really about work: what it means, what it says about us — Reed’s complex relationship with his family is only hinted at, really, but we get enough to know he is no simplistic G-man.
Maybe not coincidentally, the film also serves as an example of every name in the credits doing the best job possible to emphasize the casual genius in this era and genre of American filmmaking. Kazan throws himself behind the desire to frighten and, simultaneously, the desire to entertain and educate — without delving into mawkishness or alarmism, the film is strikingly realistic and unsentimental. The script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Murphy is outstanding, never forsaking detail or convincing characterization for cheap, vague scare tactics. Even minor characters are vivid and well-rounded, and taking a cue from the movies Hitchcock made for Gaumont in the ’30s, every odd face and personality, every location, every bizarre semi-related exchange of dialogue is marvelously weird and engaging.
Take, for instance, the glum apartment building where Poldi meets his sad end. At the height of the film’s tension, for Blackie to cruelly impose his own quack medical notions upon a clearly dying man is one of the more organic beginnings to a climactic chase scene — and that chase scene itself manages to become singularly memorable because of Reed’s juggled sympathies. All he’s really interested in is protecting people, not arresting or killing them. Or what of the Greek restaurant, where the truth about the dead man is hidden and guarded, part of a fascinating observation on one of the shortcomings of any government institution that tries to help outside of standard law-and-order, crime-and-punishment scenarios: the natural distrust so many feel to the machinations of power. In this case, it leads only to the death of an innocent but skeptical woman, but we are not unsympathetic to her fears.
In contrast to Kazan’s better-known films, Panic in the Streets is perfectly cast without exception or caveat, and everyone is superb but not showy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Richard Widmark is a hell of an attractive man, but it’s not the point — he’s icy, direct, and believably embodies the flawed hero trying to keep the reins on potential chaos. (So much more interesting a characterization than what Kate Winslet was stuck with in the Soderbergh film.) Zero Mostel, of all people, shows up as a smarmy and obsequious gangster, and the memorably stern, over-it Paul Douglas — you’ll remember his face from A Letter to Three Wives even if his somewhat lifeless part didn’t make much of an impression — is an ideal reluctant foil for Widmwark. It’s trippy to see Jack Palance as such a young man, but he’s as gravelly and striking as ever as the slimy crook at the center of the conspiratorial overreaction to the plague investigation; he’s especially a thrill to watch during that explosive closing chase. But best of all is Barbara Bel Geddes, one-upping the modern audience’s expectations of early-1950s misogyny as Reed’s warm but sharply individual wife Nancy — we witness him being incredibly rude to her early on, and yet it’s kind of a stunning moment when she and the film (and by extension the audience) call him on it later — and she is every bit as believable and memorable as ever anyone can be in such a miniscule, somewhat thankless role.
Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald is not a particularly famous man, just a 20th Century Fox contractor who worked on a wide range of films from Titanic to Broken Lance. But Panic seems like it deserves textbook placement for its fluid photography of New Orleans locations, deeply cinematic and resourceful — it comes to feel like a story born of its setting, not the other way around. Kazan uses N.O. like it’s Vienna in The Third Man, and sees something in just about every facet of the place, downtown squalor up to middle-class housing to the docks, the dregs, the water. All of the beauty is in service of the story, and what a story it is. Shot with the manic energy and fogged-out beauty of an Ufa classic, this is truly absorbing, thought-provoking entertainment worthy of the best thrillers and film noirs of its (or any) era.