Panic in the Streets (1950)

*. The outbreak plot has long been a staple in movies and television episodes. But I wonder just how long it’s been around. It seems like somebody must have done it before Panic in the Streets (whose original working title was Outbreak). The DVD liner notes here say that Darryl Zanuck didn’t want to do a disease movie because he knew they had trouble finding an audience. That suggests an already established track record for the genre (or sub-genre).
*. Whatever its original in this regard, you could think of Panic in the Streets as a slightly groundbreaking movie in other ways too. For one thing, there’s the debut of (Walter) Jack Palance. There he is, standing alone on the DVD box cover, but tucked in the credits under the leading triumvirate of Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Like any star, however, he commands the screen in every shot he’s in, looking like a sort of praying mantis in his oddly-buttoned shirt and severely plaited pants. And that face, which already looks so old and like a caricature. The story has it that he had suffered burns in the war and had reconstructive surgery, but he later called that into question. The flattened nose at least made him look like someone who had been busted up.

*. The rest of the cast looks just as odd. Widmark was relieved not to be playing another heavy, but he seems a bit unsure of himself as the heroic doctor. Paul Douglas was, as James Ursini notes on the commentary, best known for playing “comic shlubs.” Here he’s the chief police detective. Again, he feels out of place. Paired with Palance as Blackie’s sidekick is the inevitably comic Zero Mostel. It’s as though this film is daring us to take it seriously, especially as we watch the climax with Palance literally dragging Mostel along like a prison ball he’s chained to.
*. Then there’s the matter of Elia Kazan’s direction. Ursini and co-commentator Alain Silver point out that Panic in the Streets was a transitional film for Kazan, meant to show that he could direct something less theatrical. Hence all the location shooting in New Orleans. But aside from the locations, and pace the gushings of Pauline Kael (“Seeing this film, one wouldn’t know that he had ever worked in the theatre”) it still seems like a movie that’s rooted in his theatrical background.
*. I’m thinking of two things when I say this. In the first place there all the long takes. Some of these are indeed impressive, especially the one right at the beginning involving a moving train. But they are not necessarily cinematic. A lot of directors liked long takes in part because they were a way of showing off but also because they were more theatrical in nature (there not being any cuts, aside from the scene breaks, in live theatre). This is, I think, clearly behind their use by directors like Welles, Olivier, and Branagh, who all came to film from the stage.
*. The other theatre habit Kazan keeps using in this film is a particular way of organizing characters in the frame: with two characters facing off and a third in the middle background. This is a traditional bit of positioning on stage, and it works on screen too but done so often it does start to look like it’s a kind of visual comfort zone that Kazan is falling back on. You start to wish he’d think of some other arrangement.

*. Is it true that the long takes are a way of building tension? This is suggested on the commentary but I’m not so sure. I don’t think they necessarily do. A long take slows the action down, as opposed to frantic cutting that compresses time. Long takes could be used to create suspense, but just as often I think they just suggest a kind of elegant continuity.
*. Something seems off, really off, with the relationship between Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes. Maybe it’s just a lack of chemistry, but I never had the sense that these were two people who liked each other much.
*. As you might expect, there’s a political angle to the proceedings. Note the number of scenes where we’re surrounded by crowds of the working class: in the seamen’s hall, on board the ship, in the coffee warehouse. These are the masses, exploited but not without a sense of solidarity. It’s interesting how Blackie is recognized by the one guard at the warehouse as having once been one of them. He shows them how far he’s come.
*. There’s a curious scene where Douglas complains about how much Doctor Reed must make working a government, civil service job. This from a cop! Meanwhile, Reed can’t even pay his grocery bills on his chief medical officer’s salary. I guess those were the days.
*. I do like how Douglas has never heard of a shish kebab before. I guess they weren’t that big back in 1950.
*. Widmark’s speech about how any notion of “the community” belongs in the middle ages predates Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” by ten years, but I think McLuhan was talking about something slightly different. Of course, given a similar outbreak scenario today any attempt at containment would be even more difficult.
*. What a strangely anticlimactic ending. Blackie isn’t even gunned down but simply drops from exhaustion. That’s sort of odd given how much he’d been built up as a stone-cold killer.

*. I can’t say this is one of my favourite noirs, though it has some nice moments. I like how Blackie and Fitch attempt to get away in a produce delivery truck, and the way they toss poor Poldi off the staircase. That’s almost as bad as what Widmark did to the lady in the wheelchair in Kiss of Death. But the casting is just a little too odd and it never really ratchets up the suspense. The breaks to Doctor Reed’s home life are annoying interruptions with no purpose and I never felt that the city itself was under any kind of threat. After all, it seems as though there is an effective inoculation for the plague so it’s not like a pandemic is going to break out. Why would people flee the city when they can just get a booster shot?
*. I guess in the end I felt like all the pieces didn’t add up. They probably should have trimmed things down a bit, cutting out some of the more awkwardly introduced characters (like the reporter) and shrinking a couple of Widmark’s overly heroic speeches. I’m guessing Kazan felt the movie had to be making some kind of point, but I don’t think in this case a message was really that important.

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