Sunday, September 03, 2006

Today's Movie: Panic in the Streets (1950)

PANIC IN THE STREETS is an exceptionally well-done thriller. A murder victim whose body turns up on the New Orleans waterfront is also discovered to have had pneumonic plague. It's up to a public health doctor (Richard Widmark) and a police captain (Paul Douglas) to find the people the murder victim came in contact with, including the killer, and stop the spread of the lethal disease. They have just a couple of days to successfully accomplish their mission and prevent widespread "panic in the streets."

The film has tremendous atmosphere, beginning with the neon lights of New Orleans under the opening credits. The movie was filmed on location, and it thus has a realistic, genuinely gritty feel fairly unusual for its era. Snatches of jazz heard in the background further add to the sense of "place." (Director Elia Kazan followed this with another project set in New Orleans, the film version of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.)

The interesting plotline received the Academy Award for Best Story. Some of the issues raised still resonate today, including the role of a responsible press and when the public has a "right to know." Illegal immigration also comes into play.

The supporting cast includes Barbara Bel Geddes, charming in her few scenes as Widmark's supportive wife, and Jack Palance as a very creepy villain. (Palance, in his film debut, was billed as Walter Jack Palance.) Zero Mostel (Broadway's original Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) and Tommy Rettig (of TV's LASSIE) also have significant roles.

The movie runs a fast-paced 93 minutes.

PANIC IN THE STREETS is available on DVD as No. 3 in the Fox Film Noir series. The print quality is superb. Extras include a commentary track and trailer.

It's also available on video.

May 2015 Update: I had a wonderful experience seeing this film again on a big screen at the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.


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