Widmark Deals With an Outbreak
Why is it that every black & white thriller from the 1950s gets called film-noir or at least that's how it appears. Take "Panic in the Streets" here we have a thriller set against the clock and filmed on the streets of New Orleans, there are moments when it looks every bit a film-noir, a night time scene at the docks as a man is murdered is visually film-noir. But then more often or not it is just a thriller against the clock as a medical officer and cop try to prevent a plague from spreading, yet for some reason "Panic in the Streets" gets labelled as film-noir. You need to put the film-noir label out of your mind to enjoy "Panic in the Streets" and be prepared to enjoy the little things such as the respect which forms between two men rather than whether or not they save the day.
When a body is founded dumped at the docks Lt. Cmdr. Clint Reed M.D. (Richard Widmark - The Swarm) gets called in from his day off when the coroner discovers the dead man whilst killed from being shot had pneumonic plague. In fear of both the plague spreading and also public hysteria if the news spreads Clint along with police Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas - The Maggie) have 48 hours to try and find out who the dead man was, who he had been in contact with and in doing so who murdered him. But it seems hopeless especially to Warren who believes with no clues it will be impossible to find out who the man had been in contact with before the press get wind of what is going on and cause panic on the streets.
Now there have been numerous epidemic movies over the years and something which has always bemused is the attempt by the authorities to round up anyone who may have been in contact with the virus. It always seems a hopeless cause to me purely because of the number of people you come into contact with during the day and when you consider "Panic in the Streets" is set in a bustling New Orleans it seems even more far fetched to try and isolate those who may be infected. But that has to be the case for the movie to work because it basically gives us the thriller against the clock as Reed and Warren try and find those who the dead man was in contact with and in doing so also who killed him who as we know is the ruthless Blackie, brilliantly played by Jack Palance making his movie debut.
So whilst I find the basic premise to "Panic in the Streets" a bit far fetched what happens isn't bad as we slowly see Reed manage to piece together some clues to find out who the man was and who he had been in contact with. At the same time we have the equally interesting element of Blackie learning that the police are taking a huge interest in the man he murdered and suspecting that maybe he transported something of value in to the country. The two work well as does the relationship between Reed and Warren as initially Reed does not care much for Warren's lack of urgency but actually grows to respect him.
But here is the thing as whilst "Panic in the Streets" has all the pieces for a good thriller it lacks one essential element and that is a sense of urgency. Director Elia Kazan does a good job of getting the atmosphere right when it comes to the noises of New Orleans and the murder scene at the docks is brilliant but when it comes to Clint and Warren having just 48 hours that sense of desperation never presents itself. It is a shame as if there had been an actual sense of panic on the parts of Reed and Warren it would have made it come to life rather than feeling procedural.
Despite that lack of urgency both Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas play there parts well and that sense of initial animosity between them which grows into respect is well played out. Ironically it is Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed's wife Nancy who ends up stealing many a scene because for the simple reason she plays Nancy as so nice, so loving and patient and frankly beautiful that for all Widmark's delivery of tiredness, stress and fear it is Bel Geddes you end up focusing on despite only having a supporting role.
What this all boils down to is that firstly "Panic in the Streets" is not film-noir, just an effective 1950's black & white thriller. But whilst effective it is not perfect and for a thriller which plays out against the clock lacks a sense of urgency to bring it to life which is a shame because pretty much everything else is right.