Mike Sutton reviews the R1 release of “Panic In The Streets”, a brilliantly effective thriller from the new Fox Noir collection.
If there’s one key question which is likely to divide any group of cinephiles you care to approach, its the thorny issue of how to define ‘Film Noir’. One view states that its a very specific label for a cinematic style, filmed in monochrome and developed out of German Expressionism which ran from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1950s. Another looks at it in a more thematic way, counting films from outside that time period and, just as controversially, films made in colour such as House of Bamboo and Leave Her To Heaven. An alternative view would combine the two views, including colour films as individual exceptions to the general rule. I tend towards the second view but will acknowledge the first by referring to relevant films from beyond as the period as ‘Post-Noir”. I strongly feel that colour films should be included as classic Film Noir so will not be calling them ‘Colour-Noir’, something I will discuss further in my upcoming review of Leave Her To Heaven.
There are no such issues with Elia Kazan’s 1950 film Panic In The Streets however. A brilliantly filmed, technically ambitious location thriller, in the tradition of Kazan’s earlier Boomerang and Fox’s own 13 Rue Madeleine and The House on 92nd Street, it’s incredibly tense and thoroughly mired in the conventions of Noir, not least in its view of society as a metaphorical sewer full of rats. Richard Widmark, one of Fox’s most reliable star actors in the post-war period, plays a Navy doctor in New Orleans who discovers that a man found dead in the docks has pneumonic plague, a more virulent and contagious sister to the better known bubonic plague. His efforts, assisted by Paul Douglas’s cynical police captain, to discover the source of the infection and who else has been in contact with it is complicated by the fact that the victim was an associate of Blackie (Palance), a small-time criminal who is determined that his illegal activities will not be discovered, even if the price is the spread of plague across the entire country.
The first thing which you notice when watching Panic In The Streets is the incredibly extensive use of location filming. Elia Kazan shot the entire film in New Orleans, using every technique at his disposal to use real locations and his success can be judged by the fact that no studio shooting was done on this film at all. He manages to turn New Orleans into a dark, infected maze where trails lead back on themselves and no-one but Widmark and, later, Douglas believes that an apocalypse is about to descend on civilisation. Joe McDonald’s magnificent black and white cinematography is a key factor in this, using shadows throughout to suggest the impending darkness which is such a key part of classic Film Noir. McDonald and Kazan delight in descending deep into the morass of plague-riddled corruption where everyone but Widmark and Douglas are out for whatever gain they can get, whether honestly – the longshoremen who won’t talk due to their sense of solidarity – or criminally – Blackie and his pathetic, henpecked crony played by a memorably panic-stricken Zero Mostel. Even Widmark’s socially conscious doctor keeps at the back of his mind the possibility that a big case such as this might be the one which leads him to a lucrative job in private industry. Indeed, Widmark is an inspired choice for the hero because he projects such an air of realistic scepticism about his own ability to be the daring hero that the situation patently requires. Moving away from his defining role as Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death, Widmark instead develops the complexity and vulnerability that he demonstrated in Night and the City and which would reach its apogee in Sam Fuller’s wonderful Noir Pickup on South Street. The scenes where he’s close to a breakdown are beautifully shaded without becoming sentimental (although most of the moments with Barbara Bel Geddes as his wife are a little too domestically complacent for comfort).
The pacing and style of Panic In The Streets is an object lesson for a Hollywood which, in 2005, seems to equate length with importance and flashy editing with suspense. In a modern version of the film, we’d see action scenes shot from sixty different angles and then edited together in a desperate attempt to create some kind of momentum. Knowing better, Kazan moves in the opposite direction and chooses long takes with complicated camera moves that gradually bring us inside the situation and the characters. Master shots suddenly become intimate close-ups with breathtaking confidence, demonstrating Kazan’s faith in his actors. In this regard, he also follows an interesting development which Film Noir seems to have inspired – the willingness to take actors who were best known for stock portrayals and bring out the depth they were so seldom allowed to show. Preminger did this with Clifton Webb in Laura, Huston with Louis Calhern in The Asphalt Jungle and, quite brilliantly, Fritz Lang with Eddie Robinson in Scarlet Street and The Woman In The Window. In Panic, Paul Douglas, an accomplished comic shmoe who was best known for his stage work in “Born Yesterday”, is allowed to turn his stock police captain into a lovely little miniature of superficial grumpiness hiding depths of perception and patience. Similarly, in his first film role, Jack Palance is able to make Blackie far more than simply a dyed-in-the-wool villain. He’s a violent and intimidating man but, in some scenes, Kazan chooses him to be, ironically, the voice of reason. Palance, so often prone to a tendency towards overplaying, is restrained and believable as a man who has chosen to foresake working for a living in favour of the more immediate renumeration offered by crime.
It has been said that this is the last film of Elia Kazan’s first phase, one which was atypical of his subsequent career. But I’m not sure that this argument holds water. Although he lost interest in the location thriller and began to develop his interest in social issues and the attractions of highly coloured melodrama, most of the best movies he made during the 1950s and 1960s have the same urgency and close-up grittiness that characterises his work on Panic. Indeed, his next film, the brilliant adaptation of Streetcar Names Desire was largely filmed in the same locales as this one and Brando’s Stanley Kowalski could easily be imagined as walking around the streets in the background here. The ability to delve deeper into seemingly stereotyped characters also served Kazan well in films such as Splendor In The Grass and, most memorably, in On The Waterfront. The social conscience displayed here, when Widmark talks about the global community, is also very typical of Kazan’s work, his testimony to the HUAAC notwithstanding. It’s also relevant to say that although Kazan didn’t make another film which easily fits into the Film Noir style, he retained an interest in the thematic concerns which obsess Noir and in this sense, as well as in its high level of cinematic flair, Panic In The Streets is clearly a very significant film in his career.
Panic In The Streets is one of the first films released in the “Fox Noir” series, one which promises to reach double figures by the end of the year. It’s a good choice for the first wave and the quality of the disc is very high indeed. Although it lacks the comprehensive extras found on Laura, it offers a fine presentation of the film and an interesting commentary track.
The film is presented in its original fullscreen format and it looks pretty damn good. Some observers have complained about softness but I didn’t find this to be a major problem. It’s not the sharpest transfer I’ve ever seen and it doesn’t hold its own against the best of Warners monochrome presentations but its crisp and clear without any serious damage or excessive grain. Thankfully, considering the extreme contrast used by the cinematographer, artifacting is not a problem.
Equally good is the soundtrack. I didn’t much like the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo remix, although its relatively low-key, but the Mono track is excellent, transferring the dialogue and background very clearly and never allowing either element to dominate.
The only extras offered are a commentary and a selection trailers. The former is an informed and reasonably eloquent track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, both intimidatingly well-qualified experts on Film Noir. They talk a lot about the film and Kazan’s career and touch on the conventions of Noir without getting too deep into the academic side of things. In a sense, this is a shame for fans because even if you disagree with them, Ursini and Silver are stimulating and intelligent men. However, most viewers should be well satisfied with the quality of this track. The trailers, some of them in rather poor condition, are for this film, Laura, The Street With No Name, House of Bamboo and Call Northside 777 – all of which are either currently available or soon to be released.
There are 17 chapter stops and subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.
Panic In The Streets is a riveting, fast moving thriller which deserves to be better known. This DVD presents it well and is highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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