Saturday, July 16, 2011

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Here's an interesting twist.

The original title of Panic in the Streets (Fox Film Noir) was Outbreak.


Sadly, the 1995 thriller of the same name by director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot - The Director's Cut) and stars Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, is a more suspenseful take on the same subject, a plague that can kill.

Still, there are some interesting reasons to watch this 1950 effort from director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, On the Waterfront).

This film noir is definitely more entertaining than his 1947 release, Gentleman's Agreement, which Reel Popcorn Junkie reviewed earlier in 2011.


A big plus is some fine work, in his big screen debut, by Jack Palance (Shane). Palance's Blackie is a violent hoodlum with a permanently itchy finger on his handgun.

Blackie demands his cash back after a recent illegal immigrant to New Orleans, feeling ill, decides to leave a card game early. "I want that money," is Palance's first line. What follows, a nearly silent chase scene along railway tracks and warehouses, is another highlight of this film.

Health inspector Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) is called in after an autopsy of the now-dead card player. A couple of bullets might have felled him, but something else was well on its way to killing him. Plague.

Reed warns authorities only have 48 hours to find others who had contact with the deceased or the city, and country, risks being overwhelmed by the deadly disease.

Blackie is convinced police interest in the dead man means he brought something valuable into the country. He wants to find the supposed treasure.

Police Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) isn't so sure of Reed's prognosis. The two clash over how the investigation should be handled. That kind of tension is standard in a thriller. While Douglas gets most of the film's best wisecracks, what makes Reed's character neat to watch is the other job-related pressures he is facing.


He's overworked, underpaid and a stranger to his wife, Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and young son. Warren has watched colleagues leave for better-paying jobs with less stress and is starting to wonder if he should follow.

Panic in the Streets doesn't come close to living up to its name. There's a pesky reporter, Neff (Dan Ross), who gets wind of what's happening, but the Big Easy's residents don't have a clue about how close they are to getting wiped out. Neff is locked up by police for fear of inciting panic. Debate the merits of that police action while popping your next batch of popcorn.

Instead, there's just a small number of people working desperately to track down everyone who is infected with the plague.

The ailing include Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel), a sniveling member of Blackie's posse.

Panic in the Streets features a strong cast and some interesting camera work, but fails to generate much tension about a potentially lethal incident.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACT: Richard Widmark was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his debut performance in Kiss of Death.

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