Panic in the Streets is an award-winning crime drama released in 1950. The Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story went to Edna and Edward Anhalt. The Writers Guild of America nominated Richard Murphy's screenplay. Director Elia Kazan won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. Panic in the Streets was placed on the Top Ten List of the National Board of Review.
Panic in the Streets was Kazan's second of three collaborations with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, which include Pinky and Viva Zapata. The filming of this story would take place entirely in New Orleans with much of the action occurring at night, and the work is splendid. Of Kazan's first half dozen films four of them would involve location work, rare at that time in Hollywood: Connecticut for Boomerang!, Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska for Sea of Grass, and Connecticut and New York City for Gentleman's Agreement.
Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas
Panic in the Streets brings together a doctor of public health played by Richard Widmark and a police captain played by Paul Douglas who try to avert not only panic but a plague.
A Greek immigrant smuggled into the country is murdered by his cousin and two of that petty criminal's cronies. When the body is autopsied it is discovered that the man is a carrier of the pneumonic plague. Authorities have no way to identify the corpse or discover his murderers, who are now plague carriers. Nonetheless, that is the job set out for Tom Warren (Douglas) who is stymied by Dr. Clint Reed (Widmark) and his insistence that the public not be given the full story. He is concerned that the criminals will leave the city and spread the plague.
Jack Palance, Zero Mostel
A roundup of "usual suspects" actually brings one of the men they are looking for into their net. Zero Mostel plays Fitch, the lackey of a nasty piece of business known as Blackie, played by Walter Jack Palance in his first film role. The cousin of the man murdered over gambling money is Poldi played by Guy Thomajan. Blackie's imagination carries him as far as determining that the cop's heavy involvement in the case must mean that the man took something into the country, but that imagination stops at valuable contraband. He believes Poldi is holding out on him and his determined to keeping the police at bay.
Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes
While the 48 hours of the search are carried out, we become voyeurs of Dr. Reed's personal life; his money issues, his dissatisfaction with the job, and how his prickly personality interferes with his relationships with his wife played by Barbara Bel Geddes, and his son played by Tommy Rettig. During the crisis, the doctor-hating Captain Warren and the stiff-necked doctor find a mutual respect and a possible friendship.
The mayor played by H. Waller Fowler Jr. is unexpectedly sympathetic and forthcoming with help. We don't always expect that from a politician. A newspaper reporter played by Dan Riss is everywhere underfoot and a nuisance who wants to spill the story. He's doing his job.
Emile Meyer, Paul Douglas, Richard Widmark
The telling of the story takes us to tenements and middle-class neighbourhoods, to restaurants and docks. We feel the heat of the sun and the heat of the crowded clubs in the night. Tracking down the origins of the corpse's arrival takes us to a ship loaded with stowaways. Emile Meyer, a New Orleans native who worked as a longshoreman plays the Captain of that ship. He would move to Hollywood and enjoy a career of over 150 appearances in movies such as Shane (Ryker) and much classic television.
The brutal Blackie causes much mayhem and heartbreak and Palance makes quite an astounding impression in the role. Mostel makes his character the most supreme of grovelers, and you can't help but feel ashamed for the constantly frightened man.
A large number of local extras are masterfully used in fleshing out the city and always bringing us back to the enormity of the situation. They are almost equalled by the number of medical workers and police who are required to follow the orders necessary to contain an epic disaster.
TCM is screening Panic in the Streets on Saturday, September 15 at 8:00 PM on a night they are comfortingly calling CONTAGIOUS! with the follow-up being another must-see for Evelyn Keyes performance, The Killer That Stalked New York.