In the decades since he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, naming names in the Communist witch-hunt (albeit names the committee already knew), it’s been common practice to read Elia Kazan’s work for hidden political statements. His 1954 classic, On The Waterfront, can be snuffed out as a diatribe against groupthink and union agitating, but there’s perhaps no neater metaphor for the ideology than his compelling 1950 noir, Panic In The Streets. After all, here’s a movie about a foreign-born plague arriving on America’s shores and threatening the lives of anyone who comes into contact with it. But sometimes a cigar really is a cigar, and Panic In The Streets reads less like an allegory than an extraordinarily stylish, carefully wrought depiction of a hypothetical—the Contagion of its time. Kazan called it “the only perfect film I made,” and it has that kind of proportion and precision to it, a sharpness of focus.
Opening up the noir genre to the Kazan street realism that would transform American movies forever, Panic In The Streets begins in the dark, rain-slickened portside of New Orleans, where the murder of a foreign hood is about to take on more significance than it might otherwise. After the victim comes up short in a card game, a square-jawed gangster named Blackie (played by a young, terrifying Jack Palance) orders him gunned down by the water. When the coroner reveals that the victim was sick with pneumonic plague, federal health officer Richard Widmark is brought onto the case to try to limit exposure while finding the perpetrators who might be carrying the disease. His efforts meet with some resistance, both from the force and from the criminal kind, and the threat increases with every tick of the clock.
Given the opportunity to shoot on location in New Orleans, Kazan doesn’t visit the obvious French Quarter landmarks, choosing instead to follow Widmark into the places where the tourists never roam. Palance gives the criminal underground an imposing menace, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, a veteran who had worked with John Ford and William Wellman, applies the single-source noir aesthetic to the real world. But what keeps Panic In The Streets humming is Kazan’s attention to Widmark’s investigation, and the interrogations (and shakedowns) that grow more desperate as the disease is on the verge of metastasizing. Could be a metaphor for communism, but it seems more like Kazan wanted to tease audiences with a “what if?” scenario and stoke their fears in the best noir tradition.
Key features: A scholarly (if somnambulant) commentary track by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, and features on Palance and Widmark.