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 has 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.