Friday Film Noir
70 Years Later: Revisiting Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets
A doctor and a policeman in New Orleans have only 48 hours to locate a killer infected with pneumonic plague.
Some directors make their careers by telling the sort of stories and using the cinematic techniques which best suit them. This lack of diversity is by no means sufficient grounds for criticism. In fact, it is often quite the contrary insofar as such directors are often (but not always) heralded as important voices for specific genres and styles. Harmony Korine explores the oft avoided subcultures of the United States, John Carpenter’s greater strengths lie in sharing thriller and horror tales and Elia Kazan’s most famous and respected projects were those which directly concentrated on critical social issues affecting the United States during this time, issues which far too many preferred to either shove under the rug or virulently disagreed to reach compromise on. Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, and On the Waterfront come to mind. He did venture into different territory however, although it felt like even in such attempts his desire to comment on politics or society was never far behind. In 1950 he made Panic in the Streets, a film that falls firmly into the film noir mold while turning a few of its perceivable qualities on their heads.
Four small-time gangsters, Kochak (Lewis Charles), his cousin Poldi (Guy Thomojan), Fitch (Zero Mostel), and their de facto leader Blackie (Jack Palance) are playing cards in a seedy part of New Orleans. Kochack, a little dizzy and very sweaty, is visibly ill and demands to leave, much to the consternation of his playing mates, who have unfinished business with him, namely, the cold hard cash he owes them. He manages to leave the premise but never gets very far outside the neighbourhood as the trio of gangsters quickly track him down, kill him mercilessly and take his money. One person’s end proves the start of an alarming chain reaction of consequences when the coroner and his close colleague Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) discover, after the ill-fated hoodlum’s body is found in the harbour, that he the deceased carried a pneumonic plague virus. Dr. Reed convinces officials and new Orleans police captain Warren (Paul Douglas) that the departed’s accomplices must be found, for they too may have contracted the disease unbeknownst to them, a scenario the severity of which officials would rather prevent than contemplate.
Elia Kazan’s second entry in the noir genre proves a taut, suspenseful thriller that clicks along nicely under the director’s guidance. Save a couple of elements which are shortchanged to an extent, Panic in the Streets is an example of a filmmaker impressively branching the noir genre in a slightly different direction than is usually the case all the while respecting its overall themes and style. The movie is easy to recommend for how it ratchets up the tension from scene to scene and for the many stellar performances. Despite the familiarity derived out of operating within the parameters of a genre, the filmmakers nevertheless succeed in putting their own stamp on the film.
Panic in the Streets Offers Pure Thrills and Chills
As for what fans will find comforting, there is, first and foremost, the film’s look by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. Much of the story is set either at night or inside various seedy apartment complexes or low end restaurants, setting up a dark, near-oppressive mood under which the protagonists must come together against their instincts if they are to prevent a viral disaster from striking. The picture, and by extension the world of the film, possesses an undeniable griminess about it which it never even tries to shake off. Rather, the movie embraces it, a telling example of how the cinematographer and director Kazan wanted to depict the often romanticized city of New Orleans. Even regular daytime scenes in offices, such as during the early autopsy of Kochak’s body, lack enhanced lighting techniques and possess a gritty, realistic look. Strangely enough, if there is any negative to be argued about the film’s look and how it handles the New Orleans as a shooting location and setting for the story, it would be that New Orleans’ character does not shine through very much. Part of this may be attributed to the aforementioned grimy aesthetic (which, to reiterate, is a positive aspect), yet there are large portions of the film where it feels like the story may be taking place in any American city by the ocean. There is some recognizably jazzy, swing-time music that roars in the streets which remind the viewer where the story is set, but overall one could make the case that New Orleans is actually underused.
An area where Kazan and company play the noir tropes from a different angle is in the characterizations, specifically Dr. Reed and the lead gangster, Blackie. Richard Widmark brings a heavy dose of sarcasm to the role of the doctor, a man who is a great asset to his field but also very tired and weary. ‘Overworked and underpaid.’ as the saying goes and quite literally in fact, at least judging by the heated conversation he and his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) have in an early scene in which they argue about how difficult it is to pay their long-overdue bills. When on the job however, Reed is a man of action, so to speak, and knows how to fire up or, depending on the other person’s temperament, greatly irk colleague and witnesses with his unhinged determination. In essence, he is the archetypical noir hero, so often in the shape of a police detective, private eye, or an unfortunate victim circumstance, only that in Panic in the Streets he is Lt. Cmdr from the United States Public Health Service, complete with his brilliant military attire. His cause and perspective are thus starkly different from many other protagonists all the while displaying a familiar attitude. Jack Palance, as the chief villain, is asked far more nuanced than what one might expect. There is no mistaking he is a scoundrel first and foremost, specifically in moments when he needs to put pressure on other lowlifes he mistrusts. Few will question the inherent violence that lurks beneath the handsome face, a violence that does occasionally erupt in spectacular fashion in the near in a scene involving the transport of a sick friend from an apartment to a doctor’s car. Even so, Blackie is very good at earning people’s trust because he can put on a nicer face and genuinely come across as decent when the need be. For that reason, discerning just how ‘bad’ this bad guy really is not so simple. The film’s only fault in that regard is there is not enough of the Palance himself. In fairness, Panic was his first film role, with the lack of experience possibly explaining why Kazan was not keen on using him more than he did. It is a criticism that can only work with the benefit of hindsight, which itself is not entirely fair, but more Jack Palance is almost always the better choice.
The conditions under which the story occurs also make the film rather unique for what it is. For one, the individuals a viewer recognizes as the antagonists (Blackie, Poldi, Fitch) can only carry their mean streak as far as their own circumstances allow them. For one, they are but small-time crooks, not crime lords or even members of any recognizable criminal empire. It is up to Blackie and his cohorts to hustle as best they can to earn a living, even if it means rustling the feathers of other lowlifes. Secondly, near the end of the picture their predicament changes entirely when one of their own, Poldi, falls ill to the pneumonic plague virus. At the time they haven’t the faintest idea what their friend’s condition is, all they recognize is that he requires assistance. Blackie even pays for a doctor out of his own pocket. Even though there is an ulterior motive behind Blackie’s sudden magnanimity, it still puts his strategy into a different perspective. Once Captain Warren and Dr. Reed uncover their location, Blackie and Fitch become nothing more than panicked prey for the climax. Elia Kazan being a director who took many socio-political issues to heart when choosing projects, succeeds in injecting some interesting if not entirely necessary commentary on the difficulty involved for various governmental branches, officiating institutions, and the media to work together in times of great stress. As the fear that the pneumonic plague may spread across the country, let alone the city of New Orleans, increases, so do the unhealthy shouting matches between the city administration, police force, and federal health service. They eventually make up in order to confront a common threat yet the idea that so many institutional levels would have trouble seeing eye to eye and properly coordinating their collective efforts in episodes of tremendous danger is food for thought.
Panic in the Streets is an all-around solid movie. While in some respects it follows a rather familiar path in telling its story, it also offers some pleasant surprises in how it handles some of the characters. Additionally, the idea of a hybrid noir-paranoid thriller is very enticing, with filmmakers’ efforts bearing sweet fruit in that regard as well. The film might not blow its competition out of the water, nor it is close to being Elia Kazan’s best film, but it gets the essentials down pat.