In the dark shadows above a dingy restaurant in the French quarter of New Orleans a card game is being played. One of the players is an illegal immigrant, fresh off the boat and riding a winning streak that’s netted him a nice little stack of bills at the table. Now he says he wants out of the game. His unlucky opponent Blackie (Jack Palance) craves a chance to win his money back and is not going to let him go so easily. Oddly enough the player anxious to call it quits doesn’t want to leave the game because he’s up in winnings and wants to walk away with a wad of cash. He is sweating profusely, looks like hell and is complaining of being very ill. He says he’s so sick, that he has to go home to lie down. He breaks away from the game under heavy protest from the other players. Palance, his crony Raymond (Zero Mostel), and another cohort follow this man out into the streets, across a train yard and outside a warehouse, demanding his money (in an amazingly shot, single long-take). The card game winner starts to defend himself from Raymond and the other Blackie henchman but his hand is folded for good with a couple of slugs from the piece of Palance. As his money is pocketed by Blackie, the audience may think that the movie they’re about to watch involves a murder by some street hoods in the Big Easy. However, what is about to unfold is an unconventional noir set in the New Orleans underworld that touches on social and moral issues stemming from the possibility of a global disaster with origins at the microscopic level.
Cut to the next day and our card game winner is fished out of the harbor and brought to the morgue. The man performing the autopsy notices the copious amount of white blood cells coming from this man’s bullet wounds. Something doesn’t look right and he notifies the Feds. Next we see a nice domestic scene with our lead man Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and his son played by Tommy Rettig (“Laaaaasie!”) doing some painting in the front yard. Barbara Bel Geddes (as Widmark’s wife) calls him in to the house to tell him that his boss called and he is needed downtown. Widmark changes into his uniform as we learn his professional identity is Lt. Commander/Dr. Clinton “Clint” Reed, U.S. Public Health Service. While he's changing, Bel Geddes gently prods him that their tab at the local grocery store has become an astronomical 42 dollars. Reed says he’ll figure out a way to pay it and we are made aware that this man is not making a great living as a doctor for the government yet we will also find out he has duties and responsibilities for which no salary may be adequate.
Widmark shows up to the morgue and determines that while the bullets may have killed our unlucky card player, he was infected with pneumonic plague. Whomever has come into contact with the John Doe with will be dead within 48 hours without serum inoculation. While Dr. Reed does a fine job of inoculating everyone who has come into contact with the body including police, morgue workers and so forth, the one man likely carrying the plague they have not discovered is the murderer (Jack Palance) of the dead card player. The tricky part being they have to find the killer without letting anyone know that they are looking for him. The reasoning behind this tact is mentioning the plague could set off a panic in the population as generally the word “plague” seems to put people on edge and take sudden long unexpected vacations. If that wasn’t difficult enough they have yet to identify the body itself. It’s obviously much harder to find a killer when you don’t know who has been bumped-off. The mayor assigns New Orleans police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to help Widmark find their man to incarcerate a killer and, more importantly, contain a pandemic.
From this point Widmark and Douglas begin an unconventional type of investigation for the noir genre. As it turns out many people have come into contact with the murdered, card playing, plague carrier. Instead of roughing up plague exposed uncooperative suspects, Widmark threatens to hold out inoculating them until they cough up pertinent information about their investigation (is it a Hippocratic suggestion or oath that doctors take?). Eventually they narrow down the investigation and what ensues is a fantastic cat and mouse game between Widmark and Palance to the very end of the film. Within this dynamic exist intriguing moral and social issues brought to the attention of the viewer by the director.
Director Elia Kazan was no stranger to making pictures with social messages and moral dilemmas (Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just to name a few) and Panic in the Streets was no exception. Widmark gives a great speech about this potential epidemic not being just about New Orleans, but the world and how we as humans are all interconnected. May not sound like much today, but this type of progressive speech was uncommon for 1950 I’d wager. The issue of freedom of press vs. public safety is a theme also touched upon as a reporter character named Neff (Double Indemnity nod?) is thwarted by Widmark and Douglas from scooping the story. Their reasoning is they don’t want to cause a panic and also have the killer flee town, but does the public have a right to know about this potential plague to protect their families and themselves? This plague is also a metaphor for crime as a disease and how it poisons principles and may infect many who come into its contact regardless of their moral constitution.
The shining aspects of the film manifest in several areas and the casting and acting are certainly included. Paul Douglas is solid as the police captain who reins it in from his usual comedic relief parts and Barbara Bel Geddes is fine as Widmark’s wholesome wife. She works well in some key, unconventional love scenes with Widmark where they are both longing to be close to one another but she must keep at a physical distance because he may be contaminated. Zero Mostel is perfectly cast as Blackie’s sleazy and degenerate underling and Jack Palance (in his motion picture debut) is fantastic as the heavy. He has just the right balance of menace, and believability as an underworld player who may explode with violence at any moment. This young Palance has a very swarthy, gaunt and creepy look going for him, which adds to his presence as a nefarious element one wouldn’t want to cross. Richard Widmark earns serious kudos in my book for this film, as I believe it may be his finest role. He maintains a balance of controlled distress at the potential cataclysmic events that may unfold and passionate determination in his quest to stop both a human and microscopic killer alike. Dr. Clint Reed comes off in a believable and compelling fashion because Widmark brings so much to the table as an empathetic and tough leading man protagonist that when watching him in Panic in the Streets, one forgets all about Tommy Udo (Kiss of Death), Harry Fabian (Night and the City), Skip McCoy (Pickup on South Street) and his other villain or anti-hero roles for which he is associated.
The aspect of this film that shines the most is Kazan’s use of the camera. In many of the shots characters are constantly moving about in the frame creating an edginess to the scenes but Kazan makes the dance between the actors and the camera seem effortless. He incorporates these amazing long takes that may begin on a group of characters and several minutes later we have moved about them and end on a close up. Many of these extended single takes are sans dialogue and remind me of some of the silent Fritz Lang films in their mastery of telling a story with only the camera.
Panic in the Streets is a true gem that deserves more credit that perhaps it has received over the years. Apparently at the end of his career, Kazan felt it was one of his most well crafted and important films amongst his very impressive body of work. The script (Edward and Edna Anhalt of The Sniper and The Young Lions), filming, acting and direction that comprise Panic in the Streets are of the highest calibers across the board. The ending chase scene through the coffee warehouse is worth the price of admission alone; however, I practically guarantee one viewing will only make you concur with Kazan’s self-appraisal of his stellar film.