Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Target #40: Panic in the Streets (1950, Elia Kazan)

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Edna Anhalt (story), Edward Anhalt (story), Daniel Fuchs (adaptation), Richard Murphy (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Panic in the Streets (1950) owes more to British noir that its American counterparts. Like Reed's The Third Man (1949) and Dassin's Night and the City (1950), director Elia Kazan chose to film largely on location, capturing the fresh and vibrant decadence of the New Orleans slums. In a decision borrowed from the masters of Italian neorealism, he also hired many non-professional actors for minor roles, lending an air of authenticity to the cityscape. However, any further comparisons with neorealism would be misguided, for Panic in the Streets is pure melodrama, of the best kind. A murdered illegal immigrant, fished out of the bay, is found to be infected with pneumonic plague, a deadly air-borne mutation of bubonic plague, which is transmitted from human-to-human and, untreated, has a mortality rate that approaches 100%. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark), an officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, convinces the doubtful police-chief (Paul Douglas) to undertake a city-wide manhunt for the men responsible for the homicide, lest they also be infected with the illness.

In my younger years, I found Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) to be among the most horrifying movies I'd ever seen. That thriller, which owes plenty to Panic in the Streets {working title: "Outbreak"}, terrified me so efficiently because it depicted the ebola virus as both an invisible and invincible killer – how does one defend themselves against such a thing? Kazan's film is the first (that I know of) to approach the subject of biological epidemics, though it has difficulty ascribing visual recognition to an enemy that is basically undetectable to the human eye; it instead uses Jack Palance as a human personification of the Plague. Despite his venturing out among the filthy dregs of human society, you never get the sense that Clinton Reed is placing his own life at risk {some viewers have noted that Reed never inoculated himself against the plague, though I think it's safe to assume that he did so at the same time as the morgue staff}. Nevertheless, there's still a strong sense of urgency in the hunt for the infected man's killers, underground street-rats who pollute the sewers with their misdeeds.
In medieval times, when the Black Death (now widely believed to have been bubonic plague) swept across the civilised world, killing a third of Europe's population, many identified the destruction as being the work of the Devil. Jack Palance's character, Blackie, serves effectively as Satan in human form: the angular-jawed thug can occasionally be charming and charismatic, but is always liable to explode into fits of violence; his two hoodlums (played by Guy Thomajan and Zero Mostel), through terror more than anything else, are constantly grovelling at his feet. When one lackey falls ill with fever, Blackie deduces that the man's immigrant cousin must have "brought something in with him" (the irony of his conclusion not passing unnoticed), and so attempts to ascertain what this presumably valuable object must be. He cradles the dying Poldi in his arms, a grotesque display of faux affection that is both pathetic and unsettling. Blackie/Satan is finally stopped – not by the authorities, but by the burden of his own infection/evil – as he attempts to board a cargo ship, the primary vessel by which the Plague spread across Europe.

Currently my #8 film of 1950:
1) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) *
2) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder) *
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
6) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
7) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
8) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) *
9) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
10) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)

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