Panic in the Streets
Cast & Crew
Barbara Bel Geddes
Walter Jack Palance
After brawling over a card game in the wharf area of New Orleans, a man named Kochak, suffering visibly from a flu-like illness, is killed by gangster Blackie and his two flunkies, Kochak's cousin Poldi and a man named Fitch. They leave the body on the docks, and later when the dead man, who carries no identification, is brought to the morgue, the coroner grows suspicious about the virus present in his blood and calls his superior, Dr. Clinton Reed, a uniformed doctor working for the U.S. Public Health Service. Reed is enjoying a rare day off with his wife Nancy and their son Tommy, but decides to inspect the body. After careful examination, he determines that Kochak had "pneumonic plague," the pulmonary version of bubonic plague. Reed springs into action, insisting that everyone who came into contact with the body be inoculated. He also orders that the dead man's identity be determined, as well as his comings and goings during the previous few days. Reed meets with people from the mayor's office, the police commissioner and other city officials, but they are skeptical of his claims. Eventually, however, his impassioned pleas convince them that they have forty-eight hours to save New Orleans from the plague. Reed must also convince police captain Warren and the others that the press must not be notified, because report of a plague would spread mass panic. Warren and his men begin to interview Slavic immigrants, as it has been determined that the body may be of Armenian, Czech or mixed blood. Burdened by the knowledge that the massive investigation has little chance of success, Reed accuses Warren of not taking the threat seriously enough. In turn, Warren admits that he thinks Reed is ambitious and trying to use the situation to further his career. Reed, angry, decides to take matters into his own hands and, acting on a hunch that the man may have entered the city's port illegally, goes to the National Maritime Union hiring hall and passes out copies of the dead man's picture. Although the workers tell Reed that seamen never talk, he goes to a café next door hoping that someone will meet him with a tip. Eventually a young woman shows up and takes Reed to see her friend Charlie, who reluctantly admits that he worked aboard the ship, the Nile Queen , upon which the already ill man was smuggled. Meanwhile, Fitch, who was questioned by Warren but claimed to know nothing, goes to Blackie and warns him about the investigation. Blackie plans to get out of town, but begins to suspect that his sidekick Poldi received expensive smuggled goods from Kochak, explaining the police's intense investigation of the man's murder. Reed and Warren, who is now convinced of Reed's integrity, go to the Nile Queen and convince the crew to talk by telling them that they will die if the sick man was indeed on their ship. After carrying up a sick cook from the hold, the seamen then permit Reed and Warren to inoculate and question them, revealing in the process that Kochak boarded at Oran and was fond of shish-kebob. With this lead, Reed and Warren canvas the city's Greek restaurants, and just after they leave one such establishment, Blackie arrives to meet Poldi, who is very ill. A short time later, Reed receives word that a woman, Rita, has died of the fever and realizes that she was the wife of the Greek restaurant proprietor who had earlier lied about having served Kochak. Reed returns to headquarters to discover that a reporter is threatening to break the story that a virus is endangering the city. Reed is impressed when the deeply committed yet unorthodox Warren throws the reporter into jail to keep him quiet. Late in the evening, a beleaguered Reed returns home for a few hours of sleep, and his wife announces that she is pregnant. She then tries to restore her husband's flagging self-confidence. A few hours later, Reed and Warren learn that the mayor is angry about their treatment of the reporter. The reporter, who has been released, announces that the story will appear in the morning paper in four hours, giving Reed and Warren little time to find their man. Meanwhile, Blackie goes to Poldi's room and tries to force him to reveal information about some smuggled goods, but the dying Poldi is delirious and only rants nonsensically. Blackie then brings in his own doctor and tells Poldi's grandmother that they will take care of him. Just then, Reed, having been tipped off by the Greek restaurant owner, arrives, and Blackie and Fitch, who are carrying Poldi down the stairs, pitch the man over the side and flee. Reed chases the two to the docks, where he tries to explain to them about the plague. The men run desperately through depots, docks and a warehouse, and at one point, Warren shoots and injures Blackie, preventing him from shooting Reed. Blackie accidentally shoots Fitch and then tries to struggle onto a ship but, exhausted, falls into the water. His work finally done, Reed heads for home, and on the way, Warren offers to give him some of the smuggled perfume that Poldi had indeed received from Kochak. As the radio announces the resolution of the crisis, a proud Nancy greets her husband.
Barbara Bel Geddes
Walter Jack Palance
H. T. Tsiang
H. Waller Fowler Jr.
Wilson Bourg Jr.
Ruth Moore Mathews
Stanley J. Reyes
Tiger Joe Marsh
H. C. "dutch" Ohme
Edgar J. Curole Jr.
Clifford Le Blanc
John E. Dillon
John R. Jacobs
John E. Lewis
John H. Coffey
Edward L. Thompson
William Walker Sr.
Ed "skipper" Mcnally
Robert H. Kirby
G. S. Cambias
W. D. Flick
F. E. Johnston
Charles Le Maire
John Lee Mahin
Fred J. Rode
Sol C. Siegel
Paul Vandervoort Ii
Best Writing, Screenplay
Panic in the Streets
It's not a concession we have to make with Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950), which is substantially more than a noir programmer, or even the "issue" film any synopsis of the film will suggest. Although it's essentially a police procedural - with an epidemiological MacGuffin at its center - it's also one of the wisest, most convincing, most enthrallingly detailed portraits of American life ever produced in the pre-New Wave era. Shot on location in New Orleans, the film follows Richard Widmark's Public Health Service officer in his desperate efforts to trace the roots and spread of pneumatic plague before it slips the leash of circumstance and hits the country at large. It's a tense thriller, but Kazan's sharp-eyed attendance to the physicality of chases and procedural difficulty - echoed eloquently in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) - is just the framework. It's the film's human furniture and clutter that's breathtaking.
Kazan, so hot in the late '40s it's a wonder he had time to sleep, had already made five films and won an Oscar®. But nothing in his celebrated filmography - not even On the Waterfront (1954) four years later - attains the nuance, variety of texture, and unpredictable rhythms of Panic. We begin with a waterfront card game, from which a feverish Greek immigrant stumbles away, pockets incidentally full of winnings his co-players (underground badass Jack Palance, porcine lackey Zero Mostel, sweaty hood Guy Thomajan) are not happy with. They kill him, loot him and dump him, and the dominoes start falling. Widmark's family man is called in, diagnoses the body as a plague carrier, and faces an impossibility: Head off the spread of the disease by finding the killers, with no evidence to go on. Keep the press at bay. Force the local police (led by skeptical chief Paul Douglas) to scour the city.
Using a script that had up to six sets of handprints on it (including those of script machine Philip Yordan), Kazan set about painting a roiling, tempestuous portrait of the city, using scores of locals and filling every corner of the film with genuine launches of hypnotic street business. Those four seamy card players cue us in - particularly after the three lowlifes chase the sick man across a field, over train tracks (around a moving train), to warehouse loading areas and finally an alley for the showdown, a long traveling shot that tells us that the film's canvas will be broad. But starting with the relaxed coroners' lunch-plan conversation over the corpse, we sense it'll be dense and believable, too. With or without Widmark, the movie visits coffee shops, bars, gambling pits, French Quarter shanty towns, cargo ships, lice-ridden flophouses, busy warehouses and processing plants, all of it dead real and complex, not simplified for the movie's convenience. The upshot is a picture of New Orleans as a slippery hot bed of off-the-boat risk, chaos and transient mystery, emphasized by the odd fact that there's almost no noticeable Southern accent anywhere in sight....in a film filled with locals! Instead, amid the leads' New Yawk yappings, we get a tapestry of immigrant voices, Chinese, Greek, Irish, Mexican, Italian, as if the rundown port city itself is comprised only of foreigners on their way to somewhere else.
Kazan's way with actors is more visible here than with, say, Actor's Studio vets like Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Locating the casual mojo in every bit of dialogue, he gets convincing particulates out of the amateurs as well as the grab bag of pros, almost all of whom arguably deliver their career best. (Though indelible here as a sweaty, desperate child-man, perhaps only Mostel upstaged himself later.) The modulated tête-à-tête between frazzled and frustrated hubby Widmark, home for an hour and shedding his contaminated clothes in the garage, and wife Barbara Bel Geddes, who can't risk getting near, might just be the most adult and stirringly real marital argument in Hollywood history. Certainly, watching Mostel and Palance engage in a crazy sparring battle of acting styles is like watching dinosaurs wrestle, but everyone, from a Chinese cook (H.T. Tsaing), an Irish newsie dwarf (Pat Walshe) and a corrupt ship's captain (Emile Meyer), to a Greek restaurant-owning husband and wife (Alex Minotis and Aline Stevens), and innumerable cops and city workers, has moments of surprising authenticity and power.
Panic in the Streets does, in fact, run the risk of diminishing all but a handful of standard noirs, merely by virtue of its grown-up sensibility, its fastidious naturalism, and its refusal to indulge in Hollywood short-cuts and easy answers. Seen freshly today, it easily outdoes, for at least this critic, all of Kazan's more famous powerhouses, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront, East of Eden (1955) and even Splendor in the Grass (1961). Famous for great "Method" showboating performances and rarely lauded for visual acumen, in Panic Kazan had the mixture in reverse, shooting his pulp story with an edgy fluency that could've made Joseph H. Lewis jealous, and shepherding a vast ensemble cast toward a quiet realism no one else knew from in 1950.
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Richard Murphy; Daniel Fuchs (adaptation); Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt (story); John Lee Mahin, Philip Yordan (contract writer, uncredited)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford; Lyle R. Wheeler (as Lyle Wheeler)
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Richard Widmark (Lt. Cmdr. Clinton 'Clint' Reed M.D.), Paul Douglas (Capt. Tom Warren), Barbara Bel Geddes (Nancy Reed), Jack Palance (Blackie), Zero Mostel (Raymond Fitch), Dan Riss (Neff - Newspaper Reporter), Tommy Cook (Vince Poldi - Younger Brother).
by Michael Atkinson
Panic in the Streets
Panic in the Streets
Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950), included in the series' first trio, is among the better noirs Fox released. With Richard Widmark as a Navy doctor trying to keep a potential pneumonic plague outbreak from spreading through New Orleans and beyond, Kazan's movie has an intangible danger at its core. In some noirs, death spreads through contact with greed, lust or the thirst for power, which can be contagious human sins. Here, it spreads through contact with an infected Greek stowaway or the low-level crooks (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel and Guy Thomajon) who stalk, shoot and rob him after he gets too lucky at cards during his first night in the country.
Panic in the Streets is interesting for a number of reasons. It includes some of the docudrama elements of 1940s "police procedural" noirs such as T-Men and The Naked City, yet goes deeper into character, with non-noir scenes featuring the Navy doc's home life with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and son (Tommy Rettig of subsequent 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and Lassie fame). There's also the relationship between the doc and Paul Douglas' New Orleans detective, who initially bristles at dropping everything to try to find the three killers and being ordered to keep the threat of plague from the public. Each man eventually comes to appreciate the other's skills and principles. The casting of Widmark, who'd made a name for himself previously playing heels in Kiss of Death and Night and the City, brings an edge to the doctor that prevents him from being a bland, square-jawed hero, but Panic in the Streets might not have been been able to hold all its elements together if it weren't for the very vital style Kazan brings to it.
The most remarkable thing about Kazan's staging in Panic in the Streets is how he fills the screen with an amazing amount of back-to-front activity. For instance, when the diseased stowaway's body gets to an examining table at the city morgue, a hallway stretching back from the examining room reveals a woman coming brought to an opened morgue drawer to identify a corpse at one point; in the sequence when we first meet the doctor at home a little while later, he fields the phone call alerting him to the plague-ridden corpse in the back of the frame, while his wife fixes a sandwich for their son in the foreground; and later, in a tense scene between hoods Palance (billed as Walter Jack Palance) and Mostel, Mostel's belligerent wife plays pinball in the far reaches of the deep-focus scene, both literally and figuratively spreading the tension.
Such moments not only bring a brisk liveliness to the tale, they also inject a realism that Kazan enhances with authentic New Orleans locations and his apparent use of many non-professional actors, especially in the morgue sequence. Although its premise is rather extreme, Panic in the Streets doesn't feel so far-fetched because it never loses sight of the everyday world. It has a casual, sweaty grit that's very effective. It also has the deep blacks and nightmarish distortions in perspective you hope for in a noir - most notably, the shadows thrown by Palance's jutting cheekbones, which cinematographer Joe McDonald (My Darling Clementine, Pickup on South Street) lights like sources of evil as dangerous as any gleaming gun. As the predatory leader of the crooks who don't know plague lurks within them (how's that for a metaphor of depravity?), Palance - who understudied (and eventually replaced) Marlon Brando in Kazan's Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire - makes a striking, brutish film debut.
Ursini and Silver's audio commentary is much more informal and appealing than the usual "film historian" commentary track, because these guys are old friends and because they know their noir so well. They do a good job of talking about how Kazan approached Panic in the Streets as the chance to transition from, as one says, "a director of performances to a director of movies," and to leave the overt social messages of his late-1940s movies Gentlemen's Agreement and Pinky behind. Even though Fox didn't make many top-shelf noirs, Ursini and Silver's presence certainly elevates the status of the Fox Film Noir DVD series.
For more information about Panic in the Streets, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Panic in the Streets, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
Panic in the Streets
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
Kazan was born Elias Kazanjoglou in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on September 7, 1909. In 1913, he immigrated with his parents to New York City, where his father sold rugs for a living. At age 17, Kazan enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduation, he went to Yale University's School of Drama, where he studied musical theater and began acting and directing plays.
In 1932, Kazan joined New York's socialist minded Group Theatre as an actor and assistant manager. At the time, the Group Theatre was the epicenter for radical thought and activity in the arts. Kazan befriended such notable theater personalities as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Clifford Odets. Kazan even joined the Communist party for two years (1934-36), before resigning because of his disillusionment with its leadership.
After his stint in New York, Kazan went to Hollywood, where he found work as an actor in two Warner Brothers films: City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). He made his Broadway debut in 1942, directing Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth with Tallulah Bankhead; Fredric March and Montgomery Clift. It was a huge hit. After that success, it was back to Hollywood, this time as a director for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Kazan's directorial film debut was the poignant A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith's bestseller about tenement life. From the beginning, Kazan proved his talent for enticing natural performances from his actors; James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner both won deserved Oscars for their work in this film.
1947 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Kazan. He notched two huge hits on Broadway: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's All My Sons; co-founded the Actors Studio with Lee Strasburg, a leading proponent of "Method" acting that is still widely practiced today; and two potent treatise on anti-Semitism Boomerang and Gentleman's Agreement, the latter earning Kazan his first Oscar. Kazan's next few films were not among his best, but they were well crafted and interesting: Pinky (1949), the story of a light-skinned black woman who passes for white (hampered by Jeanne Crain in the lead); and Panic in the Streets (1950), a taut thriller about efforts to contain a burgeoning epidemic which was shot entirely on the streets of New Orleans.
It wasn't until he brought Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen that Kazan had a major impact on American cinema. Featuring an explosive Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski, the films' raw sensuality brought a stark and galvanizing realism to cinema that simply hadn't happened before. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) not only earned Kazan another Oscar nod for Best Director, but it made a star out of Brando and earned best acting honors for the rest of the cast: Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.
It was around this time that Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On April 10, 1952, he informed on former associates from the Group Theater, including Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, John Garfield, and Lee and Paula Strasberg. Despite formal protests from many acquaintances from his past, including Odets and Arthur Miller, Kazan remained unapologetic to the end for his actions, and he would remain questioned by social critics for the remainder of his life.
Kazan continued his association with Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), and then in the powerful On the Waterfront (1954), which took eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and a second Best Director Oscar for Kazan. Budd Schulberg's incisive drama about the corruption of longshoremen's unions was the perfect subject matter for Kazan's ever trenchant approach to social consciousness and cinematic naturalism.
Kazan's next effort, based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) featured James Dean in his first major role. Kazan's continued ability to draw such raw, vulnerable performances out of his actors (as exemplified by Dean) drew critical praise from all quarters, and the film still stands today as one of the most searing looks of a family in conflict.
After East of Eden, Kazan would never quite scale the artistic heights of his previous movies, yet he still came up with some first-rate cinema: the steamy, boldly suggestive Baby Doll (1956), with a thumb sucking Carol Baker as a provocative child bride; an early, superior look at populist demagoguery A Face in the Crowd (1957) with Andy Griffith giving the performance of his career as a corrupt media darling; the moving coming-of-age drama Splendor in the Grass (1961) starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; the evocative America, America (1963), based on the experiences of Kazan's own uncle's immigration experience; and his final film The Last Tycoon (1976) an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, which starred Robert De Niro.
Kazan was in retirement for several years, but he made a notorious return to the limelight when in 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decided to give Kazan an honorary Oscar® for lifetime achievement. It was a decision met with vocal protests from aging blacklisted artists as well as younger activists. At the time of the presentation, several audience members would not stand up as a form of protest. Still, Kazan attended the ceremonies, thanked friends and family, avoided political discussion, and went home, a most dignified handling of a very controversial moment. Besides his widow, Frances Rudge, Kazan is survived by his sons, Leo, Marco, and Nicholas, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune (1990); daughters Judy and Katharine; and several grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
The working titles of this film were Port of Entry and Outbreak, and the original motion picture story by Edna and Edward Anhalt was titled "Quarantine." The screen story was partially based on a short story by Edward Anhalt, titled "Some Like It Cold," which was published under his pseudonym, Andrew Holt, in Dime Detective Magazine, February 1949. In his autobiography, director Elia Kazan writes that Twentieth Century-Fox's sales department, which was worried about the film's potential for "popular appeal," chose the title Panic in the Streets. Kazan also claims that he collaborated closely with writer Richard Murphy on the script, stating, "we rewrote every scene every day."
Panic in the Streets was shot on location in New Orleans, and featured many local residents in small roles and as extras. Production notes for the film claim that only twelve of the 112 actors with speaking parts were brought in from Hollywood and New York. The same source states that H. Walter Fowler, Jr., who plays "Mayor Murray," was a New Orleans stockbroker, and that Emile Meyer, who plays "Captain Beauclyde," was a cab driver. Panic in the Streets marked the first screen appearance of Jack Palance (1918-2006, billed onscreen as Walter Jack Palance). Many critics praised his performance, including the Los Angeles Times reviewer, who described the actor as a "hulking giant with a catlike grace and a caressing voice." According to a February 21, 1949 New York Herald Tribune news item, Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell were originally cast in the film.
In the Anhalts' original motion picture story, the first man to die of the disease is named "Ramon Sanchez," not "Kochak," as in the film. Although characters "Poldi" and "Kochak" speak some Armenian in the picture, material in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains the following note: "It is suggested in the script and studio synopsis that Charles Thomajian [sic], and Thomajian's [sic] mother are Armenian. However, this is not specifically stated in the film. The restaurant owner and his wife are possibly Greek, possibly Hungarian-no specific nationality is stated." The Anhalts' screen story won an Academy Award in the Writing (Motion Picture Story) category. On March 5, 1951, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version of the story with Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas and Joyce MacKenzie. In his autobiography, Kazan claims that by casting Zero Mostel in the film, he "rescued" him from the Hollywood blacklist of communist sympathizers, and in so doing, gained much admiration from Hollywood's left. His later "friendly" testimony during the HUAC hearings cost him that admiration, however.