Panic in the Streets arrived rather early in director Elia Kazan’s career. When the film was released in 1950, Kazan was really just breaking free of the studio and theatrical constraints that he felt hampered much of his earlier work, yet hadn’t begun to delve into the adaptations of Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck and others, that would largely define the rest of his career. Perhaps most importantly, Panic in the Streets came before Kazan’s friendly testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an act that forever marred the social and political perceptions of his work.
Though largely considered film noir, Panic in the Streets could just as easily be a paranoid thriller. A dead man, who carries no identification, is brought to the morgue in New Orleans. The coroner discovers the man has symptoms of pneumonic plague, a highly contagious disease just as deadly as bubonic plague, capable of killing within 48 hours of incubation. Nonetheless, the cause of the man’s death wasn’t the plague, but a gunshot wound sustained during a card game in a dispute with a pitiless criminal named Blackie (Jack Palance) and several of his cronies. Lt. Cmdr. “Clint” Reed M.D. (Richard Widmark) who works for U.S. Public Health Service, comes in to inspect the body, and immediately insists that man be identified, and anyone who came in contact with him be inoculated.
Identifying the man turns out to be quite difficult, since it seems he may be a foreigner smuggled into the country. Obviously, finding his killer is no piece of cake. Dr. Reed teams up with a skeptical police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) who goes along with Reed’s plan, but gives him a deadline for wrapping up the whole thing. Reed ends up conducting his own investigation, where he finds a rat infested boat from outside the country. Upon further investigation, he finds out that prior to his arrival, the crew had someone with the plague aboard the boat…
Panic in the Streets is well paced, and well shot entirely in New Orleans. The use of docks, wharfs, seedy hotels and other traditional locations of movie crime, serve to heighten the tension and give the story a sense of realism. The film increases the intensity by with simple but effective parallels and contrasts, comparing the spread of the plague to the increasingly extensive activities of the criminal underworld. In the midst of all this is Lt. Cmdr. “Clint” Reed M.D., a moral man—he’s serving his country and has a family—is trying to cut through all this darkness, and return a sense of sanity to the world.
Widmark completely captures the good guy persona. He is utterly determined to stop the plague before it destroys the city of New Orleans and spreads further. In contrast, Paul Douglas’ tough as nails Police Chief is skeptical at best, but they are able to form a capable alliance. The people they must confront, led by Blackie, played with wonderfully unpredictable menace by Jack Palance in his first film role (credited here as Walter Jack Palance) and his creepy sidekick Fitch (Zero Mostel). All of the actors involved do a fine job with their roles, and while some may find the apparent subtext of foreigners running around the country like dirty little rats troubling, all in all, Panic in the Streets is a fine little thriller.
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Fox’s 1080p transfer is rather dark looking, but one suspects that’s how the film was shot. Contrast is fairly rich, but the detail isn’t what you would call pristine. It looks a shade better than the 2005 DVD release, but there is some occasional fuzziness. The image quality is consistent, and textures are on the dense side. For a black and white film more than sixty-years old, this is a suitable transfer.
The lossless 2.0 DTS HD Master audio is fairly solid. Dialogue and sound effects come through clean and clear throughout. Alfred Newman’s score sounds full and suspenseful.
English SDH, Spanish and French Subtitles are included.
The following special features are available:
- Commentary By Authors and Historians James Ursini and Alain Silver: These two are obviously very knowledgeable, and most of their commentary focuses on where the movie fits into Kazan’s filmography, his pacing, his style and general approach to filmmaking.
- Jack Palance from Grit to Grace (44:11) Originally aired on A&E’s Biography in 2001, we get a nice overview of Jack Palance’s life and career. Some of his co-stars, Billy Crystal, Anthony Quinn, Richard Widmark and others, offer their thoughts about him.
- Richard Widmark: Strength of Character (44:13) Originally aired on A&E’s Biography in 2000, here, we get a nice overview of Widmark’s life and career. Some of his co-stars, Karl Malden, Sidney Poitier, Robert Wagner and others, offer their thoughts about him.
- Trailer (HD, 2:13)
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