Panic in the Streets is an early Elia Kazan film–the film he made right before A Streetcar Named Desire, which completely changed his career’s trajectory. It’s a slightly odd film for Kazan because it utilised expressionist photography and was pretty much a straightforward film noir. It’s usually not held up as one of his best films, but it’s as good, if not better, than some of the director’s later work.
It’s a race-against-time thriller about a public health officer and police officer trying to stop an epidemic of pneumonic plague after they decide a homicide victim was a “patient zero.” The killer has the plague now, so they have to find him, with just 48 hours to do so before he can cause an epidemic. However, they don’t know the victim’s identity or who he has been in contact with. They also need to stop any media reporting so they have don’t have “panic in the streets.”
Kazan was one of the first American directors to shoot extensively on location, and he perfectly uses the New Orleans backdrop. He uses both techniques pioneered by the Italian neo-realists and ideas borrowed from the expressionist filmmakers: the neo-realist films were just starting to be shown in the US and made a big impression on Kazan and many others. Kazan always admired expressionist filmmakers, especially how they used lighting to heighten the characters’ emotions.
Panic in the Streets is full of great actors, which isn’t surprising, given that it’s Kazan and he was the poster boy for “actor’s directors.” It’s a cast of mostly character actors. Richard Widmark plays a rare good guy as the public health officer, and Jack Palance makes his film debut as the villain of the piece.
Perhaps most interesting is Zero Mostel, who appears in a small role, because Elia Kazan was shamefully one of the people who named names during the HUAC hearings, and Mostel was one of those blacklisted. Kazan also was never remorseful about his actions, unlike the actor Sterling Hayden, who was tormented till the day he died because of what he had done. Kazan’s choice would leave a permanent stain on his life’s work, so much so that in the ’90s when he got a lifetime achievement Oscar, many people in the audience refused to clap for him—most notably Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter and Ian McKellen. Rod Steiger, who starred in perhaps Kazan’s best film, On The Waterfront, was one of the most vocal opponents of his getting the Oscar. Given that Kazan was already a winner of two Oscars, the lifetime achievement award seemed pointless and problematic because it was for what he did in his lifetime as much for his film work.
Panic in the Streets is, however, an excellent noir thriller from a great filmmaker—although a terrible person. It deserves a slightly more notable place in Kazan’s body of work, but so does his proto-Trump satire A Face in the Crowd. The release by Signal One is solid, with the film on Blu-ray and DVD, and a commentary track and the trailer as the discs’ special features.