PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) B/W 96m dir: Elia Kazan
w/Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter [Jack] Palance, Zero Mostel, Dan Riss, Alexis Minotis, Guy Thomajan, Tommy Cook
A dead body in New Orleans is found to be carrying bubonic plague. A courageous doctor and the police track down the source, leading to an exciting climax. Directed by Kazan with on-the-spot location realism.
From Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, this article on PANIC IN THE STREETS, written by Jonathan Benair: "For years, gangsters and criminals have been referred to in films as rats and scum, as a menace to society. Panic in the Streets takes this thought to its logical conclusion, making it literally as well as figuratively true. The murderous thugs have been exposed to a deadly plague, brought into the country by the illegal alien whom they killed over a card game. Their arrest becomes a race to avert an epidemic of huge proportions. The film gains its suspense from the fact that the viewer knows the narrative essentials from the beginning. The film continually cuts back and forth between the efforts of the Public Health official to find the murderers; and the culprits themselves, who become increasingly baffled at what seems an undue interest on the part of the police to track them down. It is emphasized that, although a man has been murdered, the police would normally not go out of their way to find the killers of an illegal alien. This gives the film an ironic edge, as the killers are initially smug because they assume nothing will be done about the murder. It is not the criminals alone, however, who are suspicious and xenophobic. The lower-class community is wary of the outside world. When Reed [Widmark, playing the Public Health official] begins prowling the cafés, houseboats, and union halls of the district, he is regarded with distrust. A café owner with an important lead is dissuaded from telling what he knows by his wife, who does not wish to get involved. Her reluctance is doubly distressing because she already has symptoms of the disease.
"The ordinary attitudes of the criminal and lower-class segment of society are thrown into relief by an extraordinary situation. The protagonist in many noir films is the man who walks alone, who is forced to travel a path beyond the limits of the law. Reed, as portrayed by Widmark, is forced to take the law into his own hands for the sake of the society at large. Faced with stubborn official resistance, personified by Paul Douglas as the police captain --- who, like the criminals, does not realize the enormity of the danger --- Reed is required to hunt the guilty by immersing himself in the noir underworld. Panic in the Streets evokes that particular underworld through an apt choice of locations. The actual use of the New Orleans wharf district adds graphic reality to the danger and disease. Adding to this unhealthy aura are the characterizations of the criminals. Zero Mostel as Fitch is sweaty, wormy, and obsequious in his devotion to Blackie, played by Jack Palance. Their archetypal performances underscore their symbolic value to the film as human malignancies. The most memorable visual simile comes at the film's climax, when the symbolic and literal action merge in one telling image. Cornered in the dockside area, Blackie attempts to escape by crawling up the mooring of a ship. The obstacle he encounters is a hawser designed to prevent rats from climbing aboard. It works: like a rat, Blackie falls into the ocean and is caught."
PANIC IN THE STREETS won an Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story (Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt).