Dr. Clint Reed has 48 hours to find two killers before they infect New Orleans with a deadly plague and cause Panic In The Streets.
Panic In The Streets is an interesting combinations, half noir detective story, half medical thriller. It opens with a group of gangsters pressuring an obviously sick man to continue at a card game. The man runs out of the room and is followed by the gang. He soon ends up in the New Orleans morgue with a terminal case of high velocity lead poisoning.
The coroner spots something troubling and calls Dr. Clint Reed, a medical doctor working for the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Reed figures out that the dead man was infected with the deadly disease, Pneumonic Plague.
Pneumonic plague is an even nastier variant of the Black Death from the middle ages. Instead of being spread by contact with an infected flea like normal plague, it’s spread directly, person to person. An infected person exhales the bacteria which is then spread through the air, the same way as a cold.
It’s also much deadlier than regular Bubonic Plague. Without treatment over 90% of victims will be expected to die. Often as soon as 36 hours, in one of the most horrible ways imaginable. Even today, a mass pneumonic plague outbreak is a nightmare scenario for a major city’s public health system. It can spread quickly enough to wipe out entire towns in a matter of weeks.
In the films early 1950s setting, antibiotics were still a developing science and obtaining enough antibiotics to treat a mass outbreak in a city the size of New Orleans would be difficult if not impossible. A further complication is that as the criminals become contagious, anyone they come into contact with has to be identified, isolated and treated.
This means that Dr. Reed has to find and isolate the criminals before they become symptomatic and infect the whole town.
An interesting aspect of this film is how current it feels. With the recent panics about Ebola, West Nile and Zika; outbreak scenarios and how they’re managed to avoid public panic, is a very important subject.
Most of the procedure used in the film seems to be realistic and since it was shot largely on location in New Orleans, this gives it even more of a gritty and authentic feeling. The film also has a sense of size and space absent in many films. This helps show how big of a job it is to track down two men who don’t want to be found.
Director Elia Kazan deliberately cast B-list and nonprofessional actors in many of the roles. While that decision is controversial, I personally think it helps the film. Many of the people have a realism about them that is hard to fabricate with professionals.
Jack Palance and Zero Mostel play the two men on the run. Palance, (credited as Walter Jack Palance) in his first feature film, shows an early demonstration of his future sneering, bad man persona and nicely portrays a hardened, resourceful criminal Blackie, who will do anything to stay free. He plays the role with an incredible intensity. This is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him.
Mostel’s character is completely different. Far from Palance’s hardened criminal chatacter, he is a twitching, always nervous mess. Terrified, out of his element and trapped with the intimidating Palance who is dragging him through every dive and flophouse in New Orleans in a bid to escape.
You almost feel sorry for the two as they desperately try to evade the law, not realizing that if they get away but don’t receive treatment, they’re walking dead men.
Also watch for Richard Widmark in a rare role as an actual heroic character, Lt Cmdr. Clinton Reed MD. Most of his roles at that time ranged from dark anti-hero at best to outright monsters. He seems to be enjoying the change in this film.
Also keep an eye out for a very young Barbara Bel Geddes who stars as his wife Nancy.
Visually the film is a gorgeous example of film noir. Making extensive use of stark black and white imagery, Kazan also uses a painting technique called chiaroscuro to shadow and frame key points in a scene.
The film also has a strong visual allegory, such as this scene.
The film does feel a bit forced at times, all of the different genre styles don’t always mesh well and the film does have a few rough spots in its pacing. The semi-documentary style as seen in other film noirs such as The Naked City, may throw some people off as well.
Verdict 3.5 Gavels out of 5 A unique film noir, medical thriller hybrid. Takes a little while to warm up, but delivers. While not on the level of A Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront, Panic In The Streets shows the brilliant ability of director Elia Kazan.