Panic In The Streets Review

An early film from Elia Kazan, Panic In The Streets is seeped in the atmosphere and locations that the director would explore further in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront and, although often regarded as a film noir, for all the stylised look and feel of the film it leaves the more traditional crime elements we usually associate with the genre in the background and comes across more effectively as a paranoid thriller about to tip over into a disaster movie.

An unidentified man is fished out of the New Orleans harbour and is discovered by the coroner to have symptoms of pneumonic plague, a highly contagious disease just as deadly as bubonic plague, capable of killing within 48 hours of incubation. The cause of the man’s death however is not the plague, but a gunshot wound sustained in a dispute over a card game with a ruthless criminal Blackie (Jack Palance) and a couple of his cronies. Dr. Reed (Richard Widmark) of the US Health Services has to quickly isolate anyone who has come into contact with the dead man, which is difficult enough since the man appears to be a foreigner smuggled into the country, but finding his killers is going to present an even greater challenge. Teaming up with Police Captain Warren (Paul Douglas) who doesn’t make his work any easier, Reed knows he has an almost impossible task, but the consequences of the plague spreading outside of New Orleans into a country-wide epidemic are too frightening to contemplate.

Panic In The Streets is a taut little thriller, expertly paced by director Elia Kazan and attractively shot using the traditional crime locations of dockland wharfs, seedy bars and cheap hotels, but also making good use of the shadowy New Orleans setting. The film further heightens the intensity of mood and atmosphere with simple but effective parallels and contrasts, comparing the spread and deadliness of contagion by plague bearing rats to the just as dangerous and increasingly widespread activities of the criminal underworld. Trying to cut through this dark underbelly is Dr. Reed, the perfect moral saviour – exemplified neatly also in his relationship with his family in a few effective scenes, but most clearly in his bright military uniform, cutting through the ranks of the teeming masses of in the shipping labour exchange on the waterfront, in the police interrogation rooms and in the seedy bars, restaurants and hotels, carrying the cure to society’s ills but finding them suspicious, closed and resistant to the salvation he offers. Showing these masses of people possibly open to the contagion and unwilling to cooperate to help wipe it out, generates a tense atmosphere and has the viewer watching anyone who has come into contact with the diseased man with increasing unease as the time passes.

Most effective in maintaining this dangerous tension are the contrasting performances of the cast. Widmark captures Reed’s determined and self-sacrificing fervour – almost self-sacrificing, as there is the suggestion is repeated that he could land himself a prestigious career by impressing the right people. It creates just enough ambiguity in the character to make his actions that little bit more interesting. Widmark contrasts well with Douglas’ hard-bitten cynicism as the Police Chief – the two men sparking off each other, but nevertheless forming a capable team. Best of all are the dark characters they have to confront, headed by Blackie, played superbly with unpredictable menace by Jack Palance in his first film role (credited in the titles as Walter Jack Palance) and a sleazily unctuous Zero Mostel as his sidekick Fitch. As a whole the actors serve the strong script well with a sense of almost documentary-like realism in some scenes. I’d have some doubts about the whole 1950’s paranoia aspect that could be read into the film – foreigners over running the country like rats, sneaking in through the backdoor carrying all kinds of unsavoury social habits, politics and diseases to threaten the wholesome American society represented by Dr Reed’s family, but there are many ways to respond to the film and taken on a surface level alone, Panic In The Streets is a well-crafted and well-paced little thriller.

Panic In The Streets is released in the UK by Fremantle under their inD Classic label. The DVD is not region encoded. A Region 1 US edition has been released by Fox as part of their Noir series and has been reviewed on DVD Times here by Mike Sutton. Thankfully, the UK edition of the film seems to have the same superb picture quality as its Region 1 counterpart – a superbly sharp and detailed image with fine contrast (essential for a noir film) and scarcely a flaw to be seen. Any issues are so minor that they can easily be overlooked. The audio is also crisp and clear throughout, possibly restored. The extra features are less interesting than the R1 release with only the Original Poster Art showing the original poster and artwork for a Fox Video cover and 11 Original Cast Stills which are of lesser quality than the film print. There are moreover no subtitles for hard of hearing on this edition.

A fine little thriller, Panic In The Streets presents a tense well-scripted scenario without too much in the way of contrivance or improbability, using real locations and strong, natural performances to convey an additional sense of realism and edge to the dark and deadly proceedings. The UK DVD release from inD/Fremantle presents the film with astonishingly good A/V quality that belies the age of the film.

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