Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan, 1950)


Richard Widmark (Clint Reed), Paul Douglas (Tom Warren), Barbara Bel Geddes (Nancy Reed), Jack Palance (Blackie). Screenplay by Richard Murphy. Directed by Elia Kazan. Running time: 96 minutes. 

Panic In The Streets is a little like Shutter Island: a top draw director taking the break he is entitled to, making a B-movie genre piece for the pure sake of it, but with enough of his characteristically distinctive touches to make the product perfectly decent.

This really would be textbook 1950s American noir were it not for Kazan’s all too human themes imposed upon it. Where you might expect the focus to be on the cold criminal, we’re instead following the officials hunting him; where the emphasis is normally on the chases and capture, here that only provides the finale. Instead the film is all about the moral grey areas surrounding the case and the people making the calls.

To contextualise, the issue is that a man has been murdered and his body, upon an autopsy, is discovered to be carrying the highly contagious pneumonic plague. Evidence suggests he arrived by boat as an immigrant only days before, so to prevent a nationwide, or perhaps even global epidemic, the man’s steps need rigorously but rapidly tracing with inoculation needles at the ready, and that means solving a murder case in the space of two days in the sprawling, murky city of New Orleans.

You realise this fits easily into Kazan’s oeuvre once the private politics begin, and you’re reminded of the grassroots social disputes that dominated On the Waterfront. Health and police officials spar over the best procedure; journalists insist on breaking the story so people can take precautionary measures. Experts are reluctant to let them, because if the murderer who made physical contact with his victim flees the city, the world is doomed. So the community of New Orleans pays the price to save the rest of the world? That’s one way of looking at it, but the health official prefers to talk of a community in global terms, so they’re all in this together. After all, if it was New York facing the crisis instead, New Orleans would jolly well want them to do exactly what he’s suggesting now. It’s not only the potentially most efficacious way, but it’s also the most ethically reasonable.

This is the first Kazan film I’ve seen without a towering male actor – Brando, Dean, Peck, Clift – in the driving seat, but it doesn’t turn out to matter. In a way it reminded me of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, another film involving an outsider prowling a city’s underworld in search of someone.

The ending is a little weak. Though I’m not sure what would be better, for the murderer to be caught (and presumably the epidemic to be averted) just before the credits casually roll up feels tragically anticlimactic. But then this story was never going to allow for a grandiose, spine-tingling ending on par with Brando stumbling, beaten-up towards the docklands. This is a minor complaint. All in all, superb, solid stuff.

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