Panic in the Streets (1950)

2010 #71
Elia Kazan | 92 mins | TV (HD) | PG

Film noir is a pretty unspecific genre, or unconscious movement, only really defined (however loosely) once it was already over. So to say a film noir isn’t particularly film noir-y might seem a tad daft, but, Panic in the Streets isn’t a particularly film noir-y film noir.

That’s not a problem, just an observation. There’s still a criminal underworld, a (slightly) downtrodden hero, criminal wrongdoings, some shadow-drenched photography, and a smattering of other traits that do place it within the genre, but it’s not a textbook example.

Its story is the methodical investigation of a potential plague outbreak in a hot, sweaty New Orleans, the latter often strikingly evoked. There are some good scenes — the discovery of the infection through to the immediate dealings with it; some of the villains’ sequences — but I’m not convinced by how it hangs together as a whole. Our heroes do have to go to some lengths in their battle to contain the outbreak and find its source, but it also seems relatively easily contained and kept out of the press. And when the dreaded happens and the papers do run the story, it doesn’t seem to affect much at all.

The cast are good, particularly Richard Widmark as Clint, the family man whose job seems under-appreciated and who longs for a bigger break. Is an outbreak his chance? He doesn’t approach it that way — he’s too busy getting the police to see sense, and managing his wife’s expectations and desires. Lead villain Jack Palance Palance in the Streetshas a beautifully bad-guy-friendly skull-like face, with his jutting cheek bones and flat-ended nose. (I imagine I’m far from the first to make this observation, but hush.)

The investigation is at times almost a straight procedural, for which you’ll find no complaints from me — there’s something inherently satisfying about a very precise, focused procedural, such as Anatomy of a Murder — but Kazan and screenwriter Richard Murphy cut through this with Clint’s home life and unorthodox investigative methods. The balance between investigation and Clint’s family issues is quite well maintained for most of the film, and admirably doesn’t dive for a pat resolve on the latter, but the home life subplot ultimately lacks any kind of significant resolution, leaving its various elements aimlessly hanging.

Some hail Panic in the Streets as a five-star classic, but the problems I mention mean it falls short of that for me. I don’t want my negatives and four-stars to come across as damning with faint praise, though: it’s still an engrossing thriller with much to recommend.

4 out of 5

2 thoughts on “Panic in the Streets (1950)

  1. I like Panic in the Streets quite a lot. Kazan could lay the social problem aspects on a little too thick at times – Gentleman’s Agreement – but I feel the balance with the thriller elements are about right here. It’s a good slice of 50s paranoia that’s very entertaining.
    From a purely technical standpoint, Kazan and Joe MacDonald use the camera very well and the movie is visually strong.
    However, the acting is maybe the best part. Widmark’s noirs up to this point generally saw him cast as the villainous figure while here he had the chance to play the hero, and did so admirably. Jack Palance always excelled as the bad guy, right from the start of his career here, and doesn’t disappoint. And I think Zero Mostel made for an interesting sidekick.


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