Movie fans are always discussing which years throughout the history of cinema have been the greatest. Most commonly, people discuss how many popular and significant films were released in 1939, but for me, I have always leaned toward the landmark year of 1950. Besides the obvious critical and commercial successes from that year (“Sunset Boulevard”, “All About Eve” and “Cinderella”), 1950 also produced a few wonderfully delightful comedies (“Father Of The Bride”, “Harvey” and “Born Yesterday”), as well as a series of skillfully produced westerns (“Winchester ‘73”, “Rio Grande”, “The Furies” and “Broken Arrow”). However, 1950 excelled in one area above all others: the crime film. As a decade, the 50’s saw an enormous change in crime movies, and 1950 kicked off this trend with such classics as “The Third Man” (Released in United Kingdom in 1949, but in America in February, 1950), “Asphalt Jungle”, “D.O.A.”, “Gun Crazy” and of course, Elia Kazan’s “Panic In The Streets”.
Starring Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas, “Panic In The Streets” tells the story of the murder of a man, who unbeknownst to everyone around him, has been infected with pneumonic plague. At the coroner’s office, someone takes notice of the victim’s unusual symptoms, and calls Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed M.D. (Widmark) from the U.S. Public Health Service. After properly diagnosing the victim, Reed teams with the reluctant police Captain Warren (Douglas) in a citywide manhunt for the murderers because Reed believes they may be carrying the plague, and if they’re not found in the next 48 hours, there could be an epidemic.
After the police begin to question every know criminal, the real killer, Jack Palance (credited as Walter Jack Palance), suspects the victim must have had something valuable that the police are now trying to find. Along with the help of his goon associate (Zero Mostel), he begins searching for this mysterious and precious item, as well as attempting to keep under the radar of the ongoing manhunt.
“Panic In The Streets” is an interesting and entertaining film because it was completely unlike the other films that Elia Kazan had previously made. Centering on a possible plague epidemic, “Panic In The Streets” still holds a serious plot, but the way Kazan directed made the film more of a crime movie than an intense drama. In fact, the directing in this film is what makes it so pleasurable to watch. Kazan had a plethora of directing talent, and had already proven it on more than one occasion, but in this film he actually tones down his talent and lets the excitement of the story hold the audience’s attention. Kazan knew that over directing the film would have been a mistake, and as a result, there are many long takes where the camera doesn’t move, in order to let the characters develop on their own, creating a more realistic feel. With that being said, there were still a few instances where Kazan couldn’t help but let his brilliance come alive, and based on these moments, it is clear that Kazan was truly a master at his craft. (The first shot after the opening credits show Kazan’s talents at work.)
The biggest problem with the film is that there doesn’t quite seem to be enough going on, and in order to stretch the running time, some scenes extend too long. One exchange between Reed and his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes), in particular, makes the excitement of the film come to a crashing halt. “Panic In The Streets” would have worked better as an 85 minute, action-never-stopping film, instead of the 96-minute crime drama, with some slower, more serious dramatic moments mixed in.
“Panic In The Streets” was not a huge box office success, which many blamed on the inflated budget, due to the location filming. Kazan opted to film entirely in New Orleans, which may have been more expensive, but looking back today, this film is more glorious because of the location shooting. Kazan properly showed off several different areas of the city, and there is an overwhelming authenticity that could not have been captured on a set or studio backlot. The climax of “Panic In The Streets” takes place in a coffee warehouse and on the surrounding docks. Because it was filmed on location, we don’t just see what is happening; we can smell the ocean, feel the crisp harbor breeze and shiver in the icy chill of the water. Location filming elevates “Panic In The Streets” to an entirely different level.
Although Kazan didn’t receive much acclaim for this film in its initial release, it did win an Academy Award for the husband and wife writing team of Edna and Edward Anhalt in the category of: Best Writing Original Story. And who knows, if Kazan would have found overwhelming success with this type of film, it may have prevented him from going back to the serious dramas that had given him (and would continue to give him), tremendous acclaim throughout his career.
For more from director Elia Kazan see:
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
“Viva Zapata!” (1952)
“On the Waterfront” (1954)
“Wild River” (1960)Back to Home for More Reviews