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Panic in the Streets

Panic in the Streets(1950)

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As Jimmy Durante used to moan, "Everybody's tryin' to get into the act!" But this time it's a good thing. The Hollywood studios' video divisions have finally taken a look at The Criterion Collection's legion of loyal completists, and tried to develop similar lines of releases that do more than just throw an old movie and a scratchy trailer onto a DVD. Warner began doing so a couple of years ago, and now Fox has launched its Fox Film Noir series, featuring audio commentaries by The Noir Style authors James Ursini and Alain Silver, the latter also a co-author of the indispensable Film Noir or, as many of us call it, "the big black film noir book."

Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950), included in the series' first trio, is among the better noirs Fox released. With Richard Widmark as a Navy doctor trying to keep a potential pneumonic plague outbreak from spreading through New Orleans and beyond, Kazan's movie has an intangible danger at its core. In some noirs, death spreads through contact with greed, lust or the thirst for power, which can be contagious human sins. Here, it spreads through contact with an infected Greek stowaway or the low-level crooks (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel and Guy Thomajon) who stalk, shoot and rob him after he gets too lucky at cards during his first night in the country.

Panic in the Streets is interesting for a number of reasons. It includes some of the docudrama elements of 1940s "police procedural" noirs such as T-Men and The Naked City, yet goes deeper into character, with non-noir scenes featuring the Navy doc's home life with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and son (Tommy Rettig of subsequent 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and Lassie fame). There's also the relationship between the doc and Paul Douglas' New Orleans detective, who initially bristles at dropping everything to try to find the three killers and being ordered to keep the threat of plague from the public. Each man eventually comes to appreciate the other's skills and principles. The casting of Widmark, who'd made a name for himself previously playing heels in Kiss of Death and Night and the City, brings an edge to the doctor that prevents him from being a bland, square-jawed hero, but Panic in the Streets might not have been been able to hold all its elements together if it weren't for the very vital style Kazan brings to it.

The most remarkable thing about Kazan's staging in Panic in the Streets is how he fills the screen with an amazing amount of back-to-front activity. For instance, when the diseased stowaway's body gets to an examining table at the city morgue, a hallway stretching back from the examining room reveals a woman coming brought to an opened morgue drawer to identify a corpse at one point; in the sequence when we first meet the doctor at home a little while later, he fields the phone call alerting him to the plague-ridden corpse in the back of the frame, while his wife fixes a sandwich for their son in the foreground; and later, in a tense scene between hoods Palance (billed as Walter Jack Palance) and Mostel, Mostel's belligerent wife plays pinball in the far reaches of the deep-focus scene, both literally and figuratively spreading the tension.

Such moments not only bring a brisk liveliness to the tale, they also inject a realism that Kazan enhances with authentic New Orleans locations and his apparent use of many non-professional actors, especially in the morgue sequence. Although its premise is rather extreme, Panic in the Streets doesn't feel so far-fetched because it never loses sight of the everyday world. It has a casual, sweaty grit that's very effective. It also has the deep blacks and nightmarish distortions in perspective you hope for in a noir - most notably, the shadows thrown by Palance's jutting cheekbones, which cinematographer Joe McDonald (My Darling Clementine, Pickup on South Street) lights like sources of evil as dangerous as any gleaming gun. As the predatory leader of the crooks who don't know plague lurks within them (how's that for a metaphor of depravity?), Palance - who understudied (and eventually replaced) Marlon Brando in Kazan's Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire - makes a striking, brutish film debut.

Ursini and Silver's audio commentary is much more informal and appealing than the usual "film historian" commentary track, because these guys are old friends and because they know their noir so well. They do a good job of talking about how Kazan approached Panic in the Streets as the chance to transition from, as one says, "a director of performances to a director of movies," and to leave the overt social messages of his late-1940s movies Gentlemen's Agreement and Pinky behind. Even though Fox didn't make many top-shelf noirs, Ursini and Silver's presence certainly elevates the status of the Fox Film Noir DVD series.

For more information about Panic in the Streets, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Panic in the Streets, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman