Panic in the Streets: Noir or Not, Still a Good Film After All These Years

Panic in the Streets (1950) is a good film that solidifies Richard Widmark’s place in Hollywood as a hard-boiled hero. Shot on location in New Orleans by legendary director Elia Kazan, PitS tells the tale of 2 men who are in pursuit of a criminal. Widmark plays Dr. Clint Reed of the Public Health Dept and Paul Douglas plays Police Capt. Tom Warren. They form a reluctant partnership in pursuit of a killer, Blackie (Jack Palance in his screen debut) whose victim was determined to be suffering from highly contagious pneumonic plague when he was brutally murdered and dumped. Reed and Warren are given 48 hours to identify the victim’s identity and find the killer in order to curtail an epidemic. Reed pleads successfully to have the information withheld from the press in order to prevent mass panic and possible further spread of the disease. The tension of the race against the clock is balanced by the contrasting scenes depicting Reed’s happy home life.

Widmark does a fine job as the doctor. He is passionate about his work despite the long hours, relatively low pay and lack of public recognition. He is paired up with the very capable and solid Paul Douglas as a cynical police captain who is reluctant with this new assignment to say the least. The dialogue is sharp and realistic.

Capt. Warren: “Why shouldn’t I believe you Dr., you’re a smart fellow, college man, you probably wouldn’t make something out of nothing just to be important.”

Dr. Reed: “You know, my mother always told me if you look deep enough in anybody, you would always find some good, but I don’t know.”

Capt. Warren: “With apologies to your mother, that’s the 2nd mistake she made.”

Dr. Reed: “I should of seen that one coming.”

Jack Palance does a great turn as the villain called Blackie. He has a face to match his personality – menacing. Zero Mostel, as his sniveling side-kick Fitch, is icing on the cake,

I first saw this film as a teenager, at home, on TV and I remember being thrilled by the tension. The world of a Public Health physician seemed very exciting. So when it was released on DVD a few years ago, I was eager to watch it again … to see if it held up to the critical eye of adulthood. Well it does hold up, as far as the narrative flow, plausibility and performances are concerned. The cat and mouse chase is above average with the added complication of the killer not knowing about the disease threat and thus wondering about all the interest in the identity of yet another “John Doe” being washed up.

Blackie: ” This guy Kochak is just a floater, comes in off a boat, gets very unsocial and then pulls a knife that he’s gonna use on Poldi. So they turn the town upside down for one crumb. They got every cop in town, huffin’ and puffin’ trying to find out who he is. Why are they doing that?”

Fitch: “Blackie, I don’t know.”

Blackie: “I”ll figure it out for you. I gotta hunch that he brought something in, see. I gotta hunch that he brought something in, and they’re looking for it. Only he ain’t got it, you know why, because friend Poldi’s got it.”

So Reed and Warren are looking for Blackie and Fitch ….. and Blackie and Fitch are looking for Poldi and the potential loot. The chase is on.

What elevates this film beyond a chase plot is the unveiling of personal relationships. Some are well established, and we just catch glimpses, such as Dr. Reed’s domestic life. Although the scenes are few, they ring true and add dimension to the main character. We find out about their financial struggles, career aspirations, and desire for a bigger family. I love this bit of dialogue between Clint Reed and his wife Nancy (played so well by Barbara Bel Geddes). She has just scolded her husband for indulging their only child with extra pocket money after he blew his allowance. “Incidentally, since you’re being so free with your money” as she hands him another unpaid bill. It is clear that Reed has a long working day that leaves him little family time. His wife is tired of “being the heavy” and guilt causes Reed to indulge his son (played by Tommy Rettig, in his film debut and 1st of 3 films with RW; what are the other 2?). I also really appreciate the way Nancy does not let her husband get away with his crabby behavior. She makes it clear that she does not appreciate being his verbal punching bag just because he has had a hard day at work. I like her strength!

We also witness the evolution of Reed and Warren’s relationship. They start off almost resenting one another but develop a genuine respect for one another by the end of the chase.

The relationship of Blackie and Fitch has some interesting revelations and parallels the relationship of Reed and Warren. I chuckled at their “good cop/bad cop” routines as both pairs are in pursuit.

Interestingly, pneumonic plague is still considered a virulent disease, caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. Thankfully, it is pretty rare. Widmark’s medical spiel at the beginning of the movie is an accurate depiction of the disease process. If diagnosed in time, it can be treated with Streptomycin as stated in the film. A vaccine was also available historically to prevent spread of disease. I was impressed by the medical accuracy of this film except for one part. The examination of the 1st body was extremely cursory, and yet a communicable pneumonic disease was suspected and bystanders were ordered out of the room. A bit nit-picky, I admit. I also get a chuckle over the paternalistic practice of medicine, which is probably accurate for the time. My how times have changed!

The R1 DVD is part of the Fox Film Noir series. However, whether this film represents true noir is debatable. The location shooting certainly gives the film a gritty atmosphere. The disc includes a commentary track by James Ursini and Alain Silver which is quite good if you are a film buff, but the DVD is otherwise pretty lean. I can recommend this film to anyone who is not bothered by black and white cinematography. You can watch it online below

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