Monday, April 19, 2010

Panic in the Streets

Before Elia Kazan directed 'East of Eden', 'On the Waterfront' and 'A Streetcar named Desire' he developed his dramatic chops with this bit of half medical thriller/half detective film noir. Richard Widmark plays Dr. Reed, a Doctor for the Public Health Service. A coroner in New Orleans finds something suspicious with a murder victim and calls in Reed to investigate. Reed believes this body is infected with pneumonic plague and that the city is under a major biological threat. Most of the brass for the city assume he is overly-dramatic, but the Mayor orders the police to help in every way possible. Paul Douglas portrays police captain Warren who has been given the task of solving the murder and containing the disease. Our two heroes have only 48 hours before the plague becomes contagious and spreads throughout the city. Thousands of lives are at stake.

Kazan understands the need for a story to move if we are to have drama. The conflict between Dr. Reed and Captain Warren is in the forefront of the film, but the underlying tension of the plague helps maintain an extremely crisp pace. I read a dozen other reviews of this movie and every single one of them used the word taut. Who am I to argue? Can the protagonists solve the murder and save the city? As viewers we know that the killer is local thug 'Blackie'. He is played, in his film debut, by one-armed push up master Jack Palance. His sidekick, the soft toady 'Fitch' is wonderfully acted by Zero Mostel. There are not a lot of films in which Mostel plays a criminal. It is refreshing casting. Both Palance and Mostel are terrific. Palance plays the evil heavy with aplomb while Mostel's whining lackey is spot-on.

Today, with the many threats facing our planet, the idea of a disease spreading "panic in the streets" is all too real. But before the debut of this film not much had been made of the possibility. Some of the science in this movie is less-than-perfect, but audiences were both entertained and disturbed by the film and its concepts. Writers Edna and Edward Anhalt, who wrote the story upon which this film is based, were awarded an Academy Award for their work in thrilling/terrifying the audience.

Panic in the Streets is a taut thriller. It is fast and most enjoyable.

Filmed in 1950, directed by Elia Kazan, written by Richard Murphy from the story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas and Zero Mostel. Towards the end of the film, Jack Palance's character climbs a boat rope in an effort to escape. He performed this stunt personally after two different professional stuntmen could not make it up the rope!

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