Film Noir Classics: PANIC IN THE STREETS
Above a jazz club in New Orleans a poker game run by Blackie (Jack Palance) is being held. One of the players, a foreigner named Kochak (Lewis Charles) who has become ill forces his way out of the apartment. A couple of the other guys, his cousin Poldi (Guy Thomajan) and Fitch (Zero Mostel) are ordered by Blackie to retrieve some money he owes. Kochak slowly staggers through the night as Poldi and Fitch trail behind in the shadows ominously. They suddenly attack him and he tries to fight back but things are cut short when he’s shot twice by Blackie and they take the money he has on him.
The next day the police find Kochak’s body floating in the water near the docks and he is brought to the city morgue. We then meet Lt. Cmdr Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) of the U.S. Health Service who’s at home painting a cabinet as his son Tommy (Tommy Rettig) watches on and reprimands him for doing it wrong. Reed is supposed to be having a pleasant day off with his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) but it’s ruined when he gets a call from the morgue. Reed arrives and inspects Kochak and tells the coroners to cremate the body and sterilize all the medical equipment asap. He then calls in the cops and reporters who were near the body for innoculation. Reed suspects that Kochak is suffering from a pneumonic disease which could possibly lead to a deadly plague. He also declares to his superiors the men that killed him must be found right away before they contaminate the entire city.
Reed and the New Orleans Police Captain Warren (Paul Douglas) begin the search by interrogating all the local riffraff and dregs. Fitch happens to be one of them but he lies about his whereabouts the night of the murder. Fitch then warns Blackie the cops are picking people up but due to their intense investigation Blackie suspects that it has to do with Poldi who may have smuggling in some priceless goods. Reed and Captain Warren then goto the docks to question the crew of the Nile Queen. While there, a sick cook is carried up from the hold and Reed finds out Kochak had in fact boarded the ship and had eaten some shish kabob which may have been the cause of the sickness. This leads him to investigate several Greek restaraunts around town. To complicate matters further, Reed is confronted with a local reporter who is threatening to break the story of an epidemic which makes his job finding the infected criminals even more imperative. Meanwhile, Blackie confronts Poldi about Kochak accusing him of holding out and forces him to tell what he’s hiding unaware that the only thing he has is the illness which is killing him.
Panic In The Streets is a tension filled race against time, a theme it shares with Rudolph Mate’s D.O.A another story about a ticking clock and a deadly affliction. It also shares a common thread with a noir horror film like Isle of The Dead in its idea of a plague spreading and causing fear amongst its characters. While the storyline may be dark and dreadful, the characters maintain an air of positivity and resolve that never really takes the movie into a profoundly chaotic state. To bring a realistic and offbeat atmosphere to the film, Director Elia Kazan chose unusual looking actors of the day like Zero Mostel and Jack Palance (credited with his first name Walter) as well as actual New Orleans residents. The pacing is nicely maintained throughout and the direction is as sharp as a razor, framed creatively and precisely. The trademark noir chiaroscuro lighting is featured in several scenes to emphasize the disease’s impending doom.