Sunday, October 16, 2016

PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 96m 13s


Most film noirs that hail from the 1940s focus on a lone wolf or a small assortment of down-and-outers. Released in 1950, the urban thriller PANIC IN THE STREETS aims through a broader scope, with no less than the future of humanity at stake. As directed entirely on location by Elia Kazan, the film anticipates the various social concerns that characterized the 1950s noir movement, when many stories no longer were isolated to a few individuals of questionable integrity. In films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), HOODLUM EMPIRE (1952), THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955), NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955), KISS ME DEADLY (1955), THE LINEUP (1958) and CITY OF FEAR (1959), noir sensibilities reached more pervasively into society, with grave implications about the social order.

The film noir credentials of PANIC IN THE STREETS are beyond doubt after the opening sequence links gambling, urban squalor and disease. At a nighttime card game in the wharf sector of New Orleans, Kochak (Lewis Charles) shows signs of illness and makes a hasty exit after accumulating some winnings (never a great plan to take the money and run, see WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS [1950]). The abrupt departure does not sit well with Blackie (Jack Palance), who murders Kochak while Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel) and Kochak's cousin Poldi (Guy Thomajan) serve as accomplices. After the discarded body is examined, the deceased's blood reveals unusual bacteria. Lieutenant Commander M.D. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) is notified, and Reed determines the dead man was carrying pneumonic plague. Now all who were in contact with Kochak must be found before the plague can spread. Few films of any genre can boast such a critical time element!



The thugs responsible for the death of the plague-infested Kochak cannot understand why his murder would be of such importance to the police. In a theme that has informed innumerable Hollywood thrillers, nobody wants to buy into Reed's concern about the potential danger. City officials like Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) are slow to get it. Only Reed immediately recognizes the potentially global issue that "...could be in Africa tomorrow." Even if by force, newspaper men like Neff (Dan Riss) must be kept at bay for the good of mankind. Expressed somewhat differently, the free press (especially reporters with a name borrowed from DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]) must be controlled by those who know better. In a telling instance of what is at risk, Rita Mefaris (Aline Stevens), the wife of restaurant owner John Mefaris (Alexis Minotis), loses her life as a penalty for lack of cooperation with authority figures. PANIC IN THE STREETS calls for complete trust in a U.S. Public Health Service man. The notion that government experts know best has lost traction in modern times with a large section of skeptical Americans, but the premise still works based upon the film's monomythic underpinnings, which is to say one moral individual can make a huge difference in a murky sea of incomprehension and disbelief.



The narrative is underscored by a xenophobic theme that correlates illegal immigration with highly contagious sickness. American distrust of the Middle East pops up around the halfway marker; the stowaway to blame for the potential outbreak boarded a ship in Iran. The concluding sequence with Blackie in rat mode confirms that potentially infected humans and disease-transmitting rats are one and the same (the segment that shows him crawling along the waterfront edge is quintessential noir). In probably the movie’s most cynical moment, the condemned man Blackie is thwarted by a baffle meant to prevent rats from boarding ships. A more grim portrait of illegal immigration is difficult to imagine.



Himself an immigrant, Greek-American filmmaker Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou) is infamous for his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but he should be remembered best for the groundbreaking social dramas to his credit such as GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947), PINKY (1949), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). My personal favorite would have to be A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), which has become especially significant in light of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump and his relationship with mass media. Kazan is not noted for repeated work in the noir category, though he did direct the minor title BOOMERANG! (1947) for Fox. PANIC IN THE STREETS is as much a film noir as it is a film of social relevance, thanks in no small part to the contribution of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who makes exceptional use of location footage in New Orleans. MacDonald shot some of the many great film noirs released by Fox, including SHOCK (1946), THE DARK CORNER (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948) and THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948). The husband and wife writing team of Edna and Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for their original story. Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG!) wrote the screenplay, and Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS [1949]) is credited with the adaptation. Per usual, Richard Widmark offers a commanding performance and reminds the viewer he always has an edge, even when his character is not a wildman like Tommy Udo (KISS OF DEATH [1947]) or Jefty Robbins (ROAD HOUSE [1948]). In his feature film debut, Jack Palance dominates every scene in which he appears, especially when the action involves human disposal. Palance starred in a number of other noir films, the best of which was SUDDEN FEAR (1952). Other worthy efforts included THE BIG KNIFE (1955) and I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955), a remake of HIGH SIERRA (1941).



The single-layered Blu-ray version of PANIC IN THE STREETS available from 20th Century Fox Studio Classics provides an excellent viewing experience, framed at the aspect ratio of 1.41:1, slightly different from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and the Blu-ray packaging's inaccurate indication of 1.33:1. The audio commentary track by film noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver was ported from the DVD version released first in 2005. They draw attention to the marvelous use of location footage, especially at night, which was almost unheard of at the time. Also unusual was the infrequency of cuts and Kazan's extensive use of non-professional actors. The co-founder of the Actors Studio in 1947 (along with Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Anna Sokolow), Kazan was well prepared to direct people with no acting experience. As for the character Nancy Reed portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes, Silver and Ursini point out that the women of film noir found themselves moved into domestic roles in the 1950s; a direct reflection of veterans returning to the work force. Gone were the days of the femme fatales that dominated some of the best wartime film noir productions.

Unique to this Blu-ray edition are a pair of supplements that first appeared on the television series BIOGRAPHY:  RICHARD WIDMARK: STRENGTH OF CHARACTERS (44m 13s, 2000) and JACK PALANCE: FROM GRIT TO GRACE (44m 10s, 2001). Both programs are informative and well worth watching.

A theatrical trailer (2m 12s) is also included.


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