Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Panic in the Streets (1950)
Stylistically Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets might be textbook film noir, but as far as content is concerned there’s nothing remotely noir about it. Despite this it’s an effective and unusual thriller, made by Kazan at 20th Century-Fox in 1950.
This is a race-against-time chase movie, but the people being chased are not being chased because they’ve committed any crime, even though one is in fact a cold-blooded murderer. Murder is a very secondary consideration here. The authorities are after these people because they may be infected (in fact almost certainly are infected) by pneumonic plague. And if you think bubonic plague is bad, pneumonic plague is much worse. It’s spread by airborne means, just as easily and just as quickly as the common cold. And by the time you’re showing symptoms you’re just hours away from death.
The movie starts out as apparently a straightforward crime movie set in the New Orleans underworld. A card game ends in murder, and the victim ends in the morgue. The doctor making what he assumes is a very routine examination of the murder (after all with two bullet holes in him the cause of death seems pretty straightforward) notices a few things that make him very very unhappy. So unhappy that he immediately rings the Public Health Service. Lieutenant-Commander Dr Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) is sent to investigate and what he sees in his microscope makes him very unhappy as well. He’s seen pneumonic plague before, in Asia, and he has no doubts whatsoever that that is what he is seeing. Convincing the city authorities is not so easy.
Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) is assigned to the case, and he’s not pleased. He’s sceptical about the whole plague theory and in any case it all seems like a waste of time to him - how can the police possibly find the killer within 48 hours when they don’t even know the identity of the victim? He’s even less happy that Reed has assigned himself to the case as an unofficial but very determined amateur detective.
The time factor is crucial for two reasons. Firstly if the outbreak isn’t localised within that time it will be impossible to find every person who has had contact with the victim and there’ll be no way of stopping a full-scale epidemic, and secondly it’s unlikely that the story can be kept away from the press for any longer than that, and once the newspapers report the story the killer or killers will be on the first bus, train, aircraft or ship out of the city. Not to mention the minor problem of a full-blown panic.
The only clue to the victim’s identity is that he was found in a dockland area and this coupled with the fact that he carries no ID suggests he is an illegal immigrant who probably arrived by ship (presumably as a stowaway) within the last 24 hours.
Kazan handles this exciting race against the clock with consummate skill. There’s no suspense as to the identity of the murderer. The audience knows it was a small-time hoodlum named Blackie (Jack Palance), but the suspense comes from the police not having any of the clues that the audience has. This is a classic recipe for suspense and it works well.
Widmark gives one of his most restrained, and one of his best, early performances. Reed is a man who is driven not just by the need to do a very important job but also by some inner demons - even though he enjoys his work and is happily married with a kid he feels he hasn’t really made a success out of his life. He feels he should be much further ahead in his career and should be able to provide his family with a lot more. There’s plenty of turmoil and plenty of self-doubts under the surface but Widmark keeps the lid on it and makes Reed both an interesting and sympathetic character. We know he’s driving himself too hard, but we know he has to do so.
Paul Douglas provides the perfect foil for Widmark, the sceptical commonsense cop who slowly comes to realise that this guy Reed really does know what he’s talking about. The interplay between these two characters is one the movie’s great strengths as these two very different men come to respect, and even like, one another. Jack Palance relishes his role as the vicious Blackie while Barbara Bel Geddes is very capable as Reed’s wife.
Noir fans will find more than enough atmospheric and shadow-filled night scenes to keep them happy.
Kazan gives his actors room to develop their characters but he also gives us some superb chase sequences. Overall it’s a highly entertaining thriller that is certainly recommended. The Region 4 DVD sadly lacks even a commentary track although it looks impressive.