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Fox Home Entertainment presents

Panic in the Streets (1950)

"This is why I'm always right, Fitch, because I never trust nobody."- Blackie (Walter Jack Palance)

Stars: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes
Other Stars: Jack Palance, Zero Mostel
Director: Elia Kazan

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:36m:04s
Release Date: 2005-03-15
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B-B+ B-


DVD Review

Elia Kazan was a titan in not one but two realms: he was as celebrated a director on Broadway as he was in Hollywood (where, of course, he was later widely reviled for naming names). In New York, it seems as if every major American play of note from the postwar period bears his mark: the twin peaks here no doubt are A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, but those are just two of many. (If it's an American play, and you had to read it in high school, there's a strong likelihood that Kazan directed its premiere.) Some of Kazan's early film work, unsurprisingly, has a stagy quality to it; it may only have been with On the Waterfront that he honed his mature and fluid style. But Panic in the Streets was crucial to him getting there; it's not an especially highbrow undertaking, which in fact for Kazan may have been the point. With its keen visuals and filmed entirely on location, though, it's a story told largely through pictures, and it holds up as a taut bit of filmmaking.

The film has a decidedly noiry feel to it (and it's being released on DVD as part of Fox's noir series, after all), but it's not a conventional entry in the genre: no hard-boiled private dicks, no femme fatales to trip them up. Instead, we're in the territory of the NIH, and our hero is a public servant: Clint Reed is a medical examiner in New Orleans with the U.S. Public Health Service, and all the trouble starts under the microscope, from samples taken from the victim of what seemed like a garden-variety shooting. We witness the crime, in fact; a fellow with an indeterminate accent gets caught playing poker with marked cards, and for his troubles, he's gunned down at the waterfront by Blackie, who doesn't take well to losing, even if the deck isn't stacked.

Here's the trouble for Reed, though: if the bullets hadn't gotten to the card sharp first, he would have been dead within 24 hours anyway. A routine forensic examination reveals that the dead man had bubonic plague, and everyone who has come into contact with him and hasn't yet received an inoculation is likely to die, and soon—Reed is facing a public-health disaster of heretofore unseen proportions. A public announcement of the findings no doubt would trigger the title of the movie; he's forced, then, to pair up with a cop, to try and track down the killers and anybody else who may have been close enough to the murder victim to be contagious.

There's a temptation, given the political evolution of Kazan's artistic life, to seek out a metaphorical interpretation to the danger, in the manner of critical writing about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or to see it as a thinly veiled allegory about Communism and Hollywood, along the line of On the Waterfront or The Crucible; they don't really hold up, though, and this is really just a movie about trying to keep a medieval scourge from spreading in New Orleans, making it an obvious antecedent to pictures like Outbreak. Still, what keeps Reed from being able to prevent calamity and quickly is a dangerous mixture in the populace of omertą and paranoia; even if it's about nothing more than its story, this is clearly a movie of its time. Kazan's theatrical style is evident in that he favors master shots; on the other hand, it helps to reinforce the authenticity of time and place, and shows how well the director used locations. (No doubt the film of Streetcar, made the next year and in the same city, benefited from Kazan's work on this movie.)

And it's no surprise that the director gets great work from his actors, in roles and modulated performances we might not otherwise expect. Richard Widmark, one of the great noir villains, is on the side of the angels here as Reed, and he wears the mantle well—he's the best sort of public servant, dogged in his devotion, keenly aware of the potential dangers. Paul Douglas plays the cop forced to team up with Reed; it's sort of a stock role, but Douglas invests it with particularity. On the other side of the tracks, two of the wild men of the period give uncharacteristically restrained performances. As trigger-happy Blackie, Jack Palance (billed here as "Walter Jack Palance") is menacing and threatening without chewing the scenery; amazingly enough, also refraining from attempting to digest the scenery is Zero Mostel, as Fitch, Blackie's ineffectual bag man. Cast more according to type is Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed's wife; the domestic scenes are largely irrelevant to the main tension, but she helps to humanize Reed, and displays the same sort of warmth she's asked to bring to Vertigo.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Early on with this print especially, many frames are loaded up with scratches and dirt; some of the night location photography still looks hard-edged and terrific, but there's too much interfering with the visual experience here.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: There's a little too much buzz and static, but overall, balance is fair on both the mono and stereo tracks.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Call Northside 777, House of Bamboo, Laura, The Street With No Name
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Alain Silver, James Ursini
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The principal extra of note is the commentary, a tag-team effort by film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini; they've got a nice back and forth, and sound like a couple of very knowledgeable guys chatting over a movie they love. It's without pretension, which is great, but sometimes devolves into little more than narration. They're especially good, though, on the place of the film in Kazan's career and in those of his actors, and on the role of the blacklist—Mostel, Palance and Bel Geddes all suffered at the hands of the anti-Communists, and there's speculation here that the Red hunting may have been, along with everything else, responsible for the death of film noir.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

Not a conventional noir picture, but full of style, grace, and terrific performances by some familiar actors in atypical roles. It's a solid movie in its own right, but may almost be more interesting for the light it sheds on the significant work by the director that would soon follow.

Jon Danziger 2005-03-14