Panic in the Streets (1950)

“If the killer is incubating pneumonic plague, he can start spreading it within 48 hours!”

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Synopsis:
A public health doctor (Richard Widmark) tries to convince a police captain (Paul Douglas) that a dead man (Lewis Charles) riddled with pneumonic plague represents a dire threat to society — at least until his unknown killers (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, and Guy Thomajan) are caught.

Genres:

Review:
Jack Palance burst menacingly onto the big-screen in this gritty precursor to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), directed by Elia Kazan with assistance from DP Joseph MacDonald. Richard Widmark counteracts his iconic performance as a vile racist in the same year’s No Way Out (1950) by serving here as the man literally responsible for saving humanity — if only he can get law enforcement to believe the gravity of the situation. (Shades of the recent Ebola crisis definitely emerge.) The storyline is tense from the get-go, as we see Palance’s cold-blooded determination to kill for money, and understand how seemingly impossible Widmark’s request to locate the unknown victim’s killer(s) really is. As the clock ticks, Widmark forgoes both sleep and time with his understanding wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and son (Tommy Rettig) to follow through on any lead at all, even as his life is repeatedly put at risk. Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs’ adaptation of Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story takes us through a variety of settings in New Orleans, with authentic-looking extras peppering the screen. The performances are all excellent, and even minor roles are carefully directed by Kazan — as in a critical early scene when a medical examiner (George Ehmig) recognizes the danger he’s seeing in Charles’ corpse and coolly but firmly takes action. This one is well worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast
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  • Excellent noir cinematography by DP Joseph MacDonald
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  • Good use of authentic locales and extras
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Must See?
Yes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Panic in the Streets (1950)”

  1. A once-must, at least – a very solid film.

    I finally saw it 2 years ago, and posted about it on facebook. Was thoroughly wrapped up in it – but I probably won’t be revisiting it anytime soon, so I will re-post here my thoughts at that time:

    [Those who have seen Steven Soderbergh’s compelling film ‘Contagion’ may be interested to know that the film has precedent from decades prior – with this semi-suspense drama Elia Kazan made just before ‘Streetcar Named Desire’. There’s plague in New Orleans, and a doctor and police chief (Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas) join forces to contain it. It’s an effectively atmospheric film, with good location shooting and a very believable depiction of how ordinary people (esp. immigrants) navigate their lives. When it comes to a film about an outbreak (i.e. AIDS as well), it’s always disheartening seeing the number of people who would rather believe it’s not happening. A singular feature of this film is Zero Mostel’s performance as devoted flunky to Jack Palance. Soon after, Mostel would be blacklisted (thanks to McCarthy) – but, years later (in Martin Ritt’s ‘The Front’), he would give a memorable performance as someone directly affected by that other ‘plague’.]

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