by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The night before last Charles and I had run one of my archive.org downloads, the 1950 film Panic in the Streets, a quite good noir thriller directed by Elia Kazan that proved he could make a movie just as good, if not better, with old-line Hollywood actors as he could with the Actors’ Studio “Method” crew from New York. It began life as a story called “Outbreak,” also the working title of the film, by Edna and Edward Anhalt, which was adapted by Daniel Fuchs and turned into a screenplay by Richard Murphy.
It begins in the underworld of New Orleans, specifically a poker game hosted by Blackie (Jack Palance, making his film debut and billed under his real first name, “Walter”) and Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel, showing what a fine “straight” character actor he could be before he was blacklisted and then made his comeback as a schticky comedian). They’ve inveigled a newly arrived undocumented immigrant named Kochak (Lewis Charles) into their game, and he’s won $190 from them (it’s not specified, but the impression is they were “seeding” him, letting him win a little before they started cheating and taking his money) when he complains that he’s feeling ill and tries to leave. Blackie and Fitch follow him out and chase him around on the docks before Blackie shoots him.
The scene cuts to the morgue, where the autopsy doctor is baffled by the symptoms the victim presented and the odd microscope slides of the cultures from his body. So he calls in the U.S. Public Health Service, which duly arrives in the person of Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark). He was hoping to spend the day off with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and their son (Tommy Rettig), but he goes into work — the film makes no bones about how the Public Health Service was originally organized as a branch of the U.S. military; Reed’s a doctor but he’s also an army lieutenant commander and he arrives at the morgue in a dress uniform — and soon discovers that Kochak was infected with pneumonic plague (the rarer form of the disease but also the more deadly — bubonic plague can only be spread via fleas but pneumonic is casually transmissible and airborne, and the death rate approaches 100 percent).
Reed — one suspects the writers deliberately made him the namesake of the Public Health Service’s famous founder, Dr. Walter Reed — immediately orders everyone who had contact with the body to be injected with a serum containing the antibiotic streptomycin, then announces that there’s an important potential transmission vector still unaccounted for: the person or persons who killed Kochak (the authorities do not yet know the victim’s identity). The New Orleans police put the investigation of the crime in the hands of homicide captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), who at first is incredibly skeptical of Dr. Reed’s impassioned pleas for urgency — he insists that the crime must be solved, and the killers taken into custody, within 48 hours or the plague will spread uncontrollably through New Orleans and there really will be the “panic in the streets” alluded to in the title — but in the end teams up with Dr. Reed for a rather Holmes-and-Watson-ish collaboration that takes them into the noir underworld (accompanied by a lot of sleazy-sounding jazz, including some recognizable tunes like “Johnson Rag” and Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow,” which here is sung by an unseen but definitely male singer), where they encounter a lot of people who, even if they aren’t crooks themselves, are sufficiently suspicious of the authorities that they don’t cooperate.
One of the more grimly ironic scenes is one in which a Greek restaurateur (played by future director Alexis Minotis, whose presence puts Richard Widmark one degree of separation from Maria Callas) who served a meal to the victim and his killers is dissuaded from talking by his wife (Aline Stevens) — the irony being that later she dies of plague, and had she shut up and let her husband talk to the authorities, her life might well have been saved. Panic in the Streets has some quite remarkable anticipations of later films involving Widmark (the scene in which he interrogates a woman on a houseboat, as he would in Pickup on South Street three years later) and Kazan (the New Orleans setting of A Streetcar Named Desire — which is actually used more effectively here because the story is grittier and more realistic — and the dock locations of On the Waterfront), and its story works in some finely honed ironies — particularly the way the criminals are baffled at the intense police attention being given to catching them when their crime (murdering a two-bit thug who wasn’t even in the country legally) would ordinarily end up near the bottom of law enforcement’s priorities.
The film does overdo Widmark’s action-hero credentials a bit, and the final shootout in a coffee plant is a noir set-piece along the lines of the Brooklyn Bridge finale of The Naked City that is fun to watch but somewhat breaks the realistic mode of the rest, but there are still plenty of amazing bits in this movie and overall it’s a drama both thrilling and intense. There’s an interesting analysis of it by Jonathan Benair in The Film Noir Encyclopedia that begins, “For years gangsters and criminals have been referred to in films as rats and scum, as a menace to society. Panic in the Streets takes this thought to its logical conclusion, making it literally as well as figuratively true.”
Benair notes the irony (this film is full of ironies, but they serve to add to the story instead of calling attention to themselves and saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m post-modern!”) that Blackie is caught in the end when he’s trying to climb a rope to get on a ship that is sailing out of the country, only he’s trapped by a hawser — a metal disc installed on the rope to prevent rats (which of course incubate plague germs) from climbing ropes to get on ships — and he loses his grip on the rope trying to maneuver his way around the hawser, falls into the water and is captured. Earlier there’s been an interesting argument between Reed and the police, who are being fired upon by the crooks and don’t care whether they live or die — to Reed, of course, it’s essential that they be captured alive so he can use them to do contact tracing and find who else may have been exposed to the disease.
The character of Reed is a vivid dramatization of what has been called the “robust” attitude towards public health, a sort of Dirty Harry, M.D. running roughshod over people’s rights and liberties in the single-minded pursuit of a dangerous disease — one which after 9/11 some people in the public health community called for a return to and an application even to conditions like AIDS, which even the most ardent proponents of the HIV/AIDS model admit is not casually transmissible — and it was certainly ironic after attending a lecture earlier that day by the author of a book called The God Virus to be watching a movie about a public health official in pursuit of a genuine — and deadly — biological microorganism!