Director Elia Kazan is best known for directing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954), and also for betraying many of his Hollywood colleagues to the Un-American Activities Commission. The minor film noir classic Panic In The Streets (1950) is not Kazan’s best work, but it is certainly a striking example of Cold War paranoia expressed in cinematic terms. It’s also a fast-paced crime thriller and medical drama that cleverly exploits the seedy underbelly of its striking New Orleans setting.
Richard Widmark plays against type as the heroic medical officer Dr Clinton Reed, a struggling family man trying to make ends meet, who is suddenly called upon to prevent an outbreak of pneumonic plague (a highly contagious variant of bubonic plague). As well as battling cynical and suspicious city officials, he is pitted against the villainous and reptilian Blackie; a murderous minor gangster played with sinister flair by a young Jack Palance in his screen debut. The screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Murphy personalises the danger of a fatal epidemic in New Orleans by counterpointing Dr Reed’s home life with the his increasingly desperate quest, while Blackie’s own search for the plague carrier provides a parallel plot which, in classic noir style, is a distorted reflection of the central story.
The plot device of a disease that can threaten an entire nation if not checked within its 48-hour incubation period is an obvious metaphor for communism, and perhaps in part because of this simplistic aspect of the screenplay, the film begins to run out of steam in its later scenes. Despite this flaw, Panic In The Streets is a strong and enjoyable film. The performances of all the leads are engrossing, particularly Palance’s Blackie, a man who is cruel enough to throw a dying man down a flight of stairs in order to aid his own escape. Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography is fluid and innovative, as is the soundtrack, opening with Billie Holiday and creating an air of verisimilitude by featuring fragments of conversations and snatches of sound to underscore the action. Dr Reed’s desperate bid to prevent an epidemic takes him into underworld dens and waterfront slums, locations that are filmed with documentary-like flair and which go a long way towards creating the menacing atmosphere that permeates this movie.
The film transfer is crisp, with strong contrast and a clear image. Unfortunately it is not presented in letterbox format, which impacts on the bravura cinematography. Most frustrating for film buffs is the absence of the commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini that is found on the Region One version of Panic In The Streets. The only extras provided locally are a pointless photo gallery and the original cinematic trailer, marring an otherwise strong DVD release.