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Panic in the Streets (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 30, 2013

A man, feeling very ill, gets up from a poker game and stumbles out into the New Orleans night.  But the menacing hood Blackie (Jack Palance) wants his money back so he and his hoods (Zero Mostel, Guy Thomajan) murder him.  At the autopsy, the man is found to be carrying pneumonic plague.  Now Lieutant Commander Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) of the Health Department and Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) of the police have 48 hours to find out who this man is, where he came from, and who came into contact with him… including his killers.  They’ll have to put aside their differences to get the job done.  Meanwhile, Blackie suspects that the heightened interest in the case means that one of his flunkies is hiding something from him.

Like The Killer That Stalked New York, this is part medical drama as the heroes race against time to halt an epidemic and part noir in its exploration of the seedy underworld.  On both sides of the story, people are motivated more by self-interest than the public good, and everyone is constantly lying and scheming to cover their asses or get what they want.  Mostly to cover their asses.  Everyone’s got something to hide, and a large part of the film involves Widmark and Douglas trying to get to the truth without causing a panic or potentially scaring away the killers.

Kazan directs with a confident touch, utilizing a lot of tricky shots and complicated staging to convey information in a way that’s efficient and visually stimulating.  He’s often got some bit of business going on in the background.  Take for instance a tense conversation between Palance and Mostel, while Mary Liswood plays pinball in the back of the room.  Palance’s intense persistence combined with Mostel’s nervous jitters already make the scene edgy, but the clicks and dings and jerky movement bring it to a fever pitch.  There’s also some great little character moments, like the easygoing banter between the mortician and his pal, or the mayor’s glib admonishment of his assistant.

Most of the movie rolls along at a satisfying and exciting pace, culminating in a fantastic chase through a coffee warehouse, under the docks and finally with Palance climbing a rope to a ship, using his animalistic physicality to look like the rat he is (the opening murder involves some unusual animal postures as well).  The only real dead spot is a lengthy interlude when Widmark returns home to his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) for a little rest and lot of soul-searching.  It’s fine — even welcome — to take a break from the action, but it goes on too long and has a bit too much heavy dialogue about living the American dream and whatnot.

That speed bump aside, however, it’s a mighty fine picture.  It could use a little more noir edginess, but it’s very satisfying.  Widmark, Palance, Douglas and Mostel all craft characters that are interesting to watch and believable.  Also a small role for the wonderful Emile Meyer, and a number of fine minor characters scattered around.  Besides looking terrific, the Blu-Ray improves on the previous DVD release by adding on profiles of Widmark and Palance.  Looking forward to watching those.  Rating: Very Good (86)


2 Responses to “Panic in the Streets (rewatch)”

  1. Great line: “…Palance climbing a rope to a ship, using his animalistic physicality to look like the rat [that] he is.”

    I’m looking forward to getting the Blu-Ray at some point.

    I like your analysis of the film. I didn’t notice the background goings on. Good observation about the lengthy scene back at the house. Clint Reed definitely has the “public good” as his #1 priority.

    I wrote a short essay (500 words) on Panic in the Streets called “Illegal Immigration and the Risk to Public Health.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback:

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Chris! Your blog looks very interesting!

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