It’s time for another film review in our Elia Kazan 2020 Redux series, but today we’re going to do a flip-flop. The next installment in our cavalcade was supposed to be Kazan’s fifth film, “Pinky,” but in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it would be appropriate to first re-review Kazan’s sixth-film, the provocatively titled, “Panic in the Streets,” which deals with an outbreak of pneumonic plague in the city of New Orleans. We’ll get to “Pinky” in a couple of weeks. The review below was first posted on February 5, 2017 and has been revised.
Panic in the Streets
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter (Jack) Palance, and Zero Mostel
20th Century Fox, 1950, 96 minutes
After achieving remarkable success with his first five films, Fox allowed director, Elia Kazan, an incredible amount of freedom in his next project, the film noir thriller, “Panic in the Streets.” This movie is a relatively simple story, but Kazan made the most of it by controlling all aspects of the creative process including casting and daily revisions of the script. Also, filming was done entirely on location in New Orleans. Some contemporary viewers will watch “Panic” and not be impressed, but in 1950 it revolutionized American cinema by the way it captured the grittiness and grime of The Big Easy. New Orleans, in essence, became the film’s main character.
A sick man is murdered on the New Orleans waterfront by some petty thugs for prematurely cashing out of a card game. When the dead body shows up at the morgue, Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) of the U.S. Public Health Service determines the person was infected with highly contagious pneumonic plague. Police Captain, Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), is directed to find the killer/s in forty-eight hours to stem an epidemic. A dragnet ensues and Reed and Warren are eventually led to Poldi (Guy Thomajan), Fitch (Zero Mostel), and crime boss, Blackie (Jack Palance). A chase takes place with Fitch and Blackie scampering through a dock warehouse like a couple of diseased rats. The pair is apprehended and New Orleans is safe from the dreaded plague.
“Panic in the Streets” is an absolutely delightful film. Kazan often stated it was the first of his films that he actually liked, even going so far as to say it was “the only perfect film I made.” All filming was done on location in New Orleans in some of the “less savory” sections of the city. Many, many non-actors are used adding to the film’s powerful sense of realism. Cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald, does some extraordinary work on this picture. The cast is fantastic and I’m not exaggerating. Film noir veteran Widmark’s performance is very enjoyable. Even though his character is a thoroughly likeable guy, Widmark also brings a bit of film noir edginess. There’s a couple of touching domestic scenes with Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed’s wife that counterbalance the frenzied manhunt. Kazan admired the cast, however he was critical of Paul Douglas in the role of police chief. I agree the ham-fisted lug is a bit “over the top” at times, but in my opinion he’s perfect for the part. His interplay with Widmark is the core of the film. Palance is simply superb in his film debut as the small-time crime boss. There’s few film portrayals more menacing than Palance’s short-fused Blackie. His previous career as a boxer as well as reconstructive surgery following a wartime plane crash left Palance with a face that could terrify with just a scowl. Mostel, as Blackie’s cowering but tightly-coiled stooge, is a treat. Later black-listed by the film industry, Mostel, became a sought after commodity on Broadway. Screenwriters, Edward and Edna Anhalt, brought home an Oscar for Best Story.
For all of you trivia buffs, the little person who appears in a couple of scenes with Blackie is Pat Walshe who played Nikko, the leader of the winged monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” Tommy Rettig, who gives a natural performance as the Reeds’ young son, would go on to play Jeff in the first three years of the popular television series, “Lassie.” For a final piece of trivia, don’t blink or you may miss a cameo of Kazan sweeping the floor in an early scene.
Kazan reached a level of realism and authenticity in “Panic in the Streets” that startled Hollywood and theater audiences and set the foundation for a string of movies that established him as the most important American filmmaker of the 1950s.
“Panic” was released on Blu-ray in 2013. Special features include a knowledgeable commentary from film experts, James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as biographies of Widmark and Palance.
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective
In two of the film’s scenes, Widmark pleads with the New Orleans city government to keep the manhunt under wraps lest the citizenry panic, flee the city, and spread the epidemic to the rest of the United States and the world. This kind of “global community” socialist message was a favorite of entertainment industry Marxists like Kazan and elicited great interest from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would eventually subpoena Mostel and Bel Geddes, leading to their blacklisting. Kazan would also be called before the committee, but his eventual friendly testimony earned him the undying wrath of liberals.
Believers are aware that a different epidemic plagues mankind; the epidemic of sin. We are all born with sinful natures. The Bible says the wages of sin is death and eternal punishment. There is no escaping it on our own. But God provided the “cure” for man’s sin by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who repent of their sin and accept Him as their Savior by faith alone.
All local and national government health agencies train to confront potential threats to public health. Christians, how are we doing bringing the hope of Jesus Christ to the world?
“Panic in the Streets” and most of Kazan’s other 18 films are available via Amazon video streaming.
Next up: “Pinky”