Saturday 8 August 2020

Movie Review: Panic In The Streets (1950)

A crime drama and medical thriller, Panic In The Streets adds the threat of an epidemic and pointed character dynamics to a gritty on-location police investigation.

In New Orleans, a grungy poker game is interrupted when Kochak (Lewis Charles), a recent stowaway arrival in the city, feels sick and departs with his winnings. Gangster Blackie (Jack Palance) is not impressed: he shoots Kochak dead. The dumped body is found the next day, and after the coroner raises the alarm, Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) of the Public Health Service determines Kochak was suffering from the contagious and deadly pneumonic plague.

Reed teams up with police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to trace the movements of the dead man and inoculate all who came in contact with him. They have 48 hours before an epidemic breaks out and the press release the story. The investigation leads to a port hiring hall, then a freighter, and finally a Greek restaurant. Blackie and his associates Fitch (Zero Mostel) and Poldi (Guy Thomajan) sense heightened police interest in their victim and conclude Kochak was hiding something important.

Filmed on location in New Orleans, Panic In The Streets finds director Elia Kazan delving into stark territory with hard-headed men engaged in uncompromising pursuits. The discovery of an unknown murder victim should barely warrant a mention in a city like New Orleans, but here the dead man becomes the critical victim zero of a potentially catastrophic epidemic, forcing doctor Reed and Captain Warren to begrudgingly work together.

The men are not natural allies, and the film benefits by underlining their contrasts. Reed is dogmatic about the impending crisis, pushing Warren into a skeptical and unimpressed mood. The script by Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs gives the conflict time and space to breathe, mutual respect growing slowly and in earned increments.

The film also expands into the home front. Clinton is feeling sorry for himself, stuck in a non-glamorous government job and insufficient income to pay the bills. His wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) frets about finances while longing for a second child to provide a sibling for their young son Tommy. But in the middle of the evolving crisis Nancy works up the courage to provide a crucial ego boost to her exhausted man, Bel Geddes shining in her designated moment.

The focus on characters helps the film overcome its obvious rough patches. Kazan has fun with sharp shadows and pointed contrasts in grimy locations, but is otherwise caught between a police procedural and a medical thriller. The plot often trips over itself trying to explain why the epidemic will hold off for 48 hours, and how finding Blackie as a crime perpetrator without tracing his contacts is somehow cause to proclaim the end of the crisis.

Richard Widmark adds a high level of intensity, his quick temper matched only by his rapid reach for a syringe to poke antidotes into everyone's arm. In his film debut, Jack Palance casts a tall shadow as a cold-blooded thug.

Despite a few questionable doses, Panic In The Streets wields a pointy needle.

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