Panic in the Streets (Blu-ray Review)6 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter Jack Palance.
As a transitional Elia Kazan movie, also an Oscar winner for best story (Edna and Edward Anhalt), as the screen debut of Jack Palance and Zero Mostel (not counting one long previous bit part for the latter) and as a key vehicle in the dramatic modification of lead Richard Widmark’s screen persona, this nifty “disease” thriller is probably a little less known than it ought to be, though its reputation has always been solid. And by six months, it even beat the modest but similarly themed The Killer That Stalked New York into theaters, though Streets had an evocative locale all its own. That would be New Orleans, which, by coincidence, Kazan would subsequently re-create on the Warner back lot one movie later in adapting his own Broadway hit A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen.
Kazan had gotten out on location a little when doing 1947’s Boomerang! — yet despite having won the Oscar for the same year’s Gentleman’s Agreement, he was regarded more than not as a stage director who just happened to make movies (though I, for one, would probably rate his A Tree Grows in Brooklyn debut as my favorite Hollywood release of 1945 after John Ford’s They Were Expendable). Panic was a successful attempt to get outdoors and down around the water, though a lot of its story deals indoors amid health clinics and bureaucratic infighting over how much of the plot-central big secret should be divulged to the public. A poker game has gone sour, and one of the participants has met a conventional death by bullets, though it quickly turns out that the guy already had a serious problem before the first cards were cut. His sickly appearance came courtesy of the pneumonic plague, which meant old age wasn’t on his agenda, anyway.
So what might have been a routine murder investigation becomes a race against time, as a U.S. Public Health Service doc (Widmark) and a police captain (Paul Douglas) hustle to locate the victim’s assailant (Palance, billed as Walter Jack, which he had scrapped by the time of 1952’s Sudden Fear. Both pursuers have differing approaches and agendas, and both have an innate ability to get steamed on occasion. Widmark has a good-guy role, but there’s still an edge to him, though certainly, he was quickly coming a long way toward softening screen image since getting an Oscar nomination three years earlier in his Kiss of Death screen debut playing one of screendom’s most memorable hoods. There’s nothing like pushing an old lady down the stairs — in her wheelchair, yet – to establish character.
Film noir is made for Blu-ray, and noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (their commentary carried over from the DVD) do a good job of describing some of Kazan’s staging of physical action, even if they keep saying the film’s release date was 1951. The participation of Kazan and Mostel here makes Panic a kind of HUAC treat, but I didn’t realize before hearing the commentary that Barbara Bel Geddes (as Widmark’s wife) was herself off the big screen not long after until Vertigo, though the Blacklist didn’t prevent her from having a successful stage career in the interim.
I first became a huge fan of cinematographer Joe MacDonald after the way his camera snaked around the innards of the Steve McQueen-Richard Crenna gunboat in Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, and only later did I come to realize his background in noir with Call Northside 777, The Street with No Name and Pickup on South Street (he also shot My Darling Clementine, too). He even did one of the relatively few good examples of color noir (Niagara), but what you see here is the real black-and-white deal. Kazan’s noir period was brief (there are elements in Boomerang! as well), but what he and MacDonald do here isn’t too far from the Kazan-Boris Kaufman look of On the Waterfront, at least in certain key exteriors.