Noir has it’s socio-political roots in post war Europe, and was strongly influenced by German Expressionism. In America the post-war atmosphere engendered a realism which manifested in the noir film as well as the crime/police drama with a documentary sensibility.
Starring Richard Widmark as Lt. Cmdr Clinton Reed M.D. naval officer and family man, Paul Douglas (Douglas gave his best performance in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night,) as Captain Tom Warren. Barbara Bel Geddes as Clint’s wife Nancy (also in a great episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Lamb to The Slaughter) and the always great Jack Palance as the nefarious Blackie. Also, co-stars the wonderful Zero Mostel as Raymond Fitch, Blackie’s slovenly flunkie.
Elia Kazan’s sociological perspective reveals to us the human condition in a naturalistic style. His films elucidate the way in which the collective soul reacts to an existing situation. Kazan was part of the movement of the New Realism, which bared witness to the state of paralysis of a post-World War II identity and shed light on the stunted psychological elements of that current time.
In Panic In the Streets Kazan’s opening shot, we are plunged into a world of immigrants and trains. The trains cut through the grimy metallic city nightscapes. Here, New Orleans is as mysterious as its inhabitants. New Orleans, the seaport shipping city, is filled with lowlifes and a sense of desolation. Imports/exports, and the working class immigrants who suffer and toil for their daily bread and muddle their way through life in the slums, row houses, on the streets, and in local bars. They are an anonymous, shabby yet tenacious community of otherness existing but not quite persevering. The aggregate disdain for authority and the mistrust of the surrounding influences form the power structures that control and look upon them as subservient class.
There is a commanding scene in a diner, Clint stops in for a coffee and the people sitting at the counter look isolated and sullen. Dirty and sickly and downtrodden. They all have cracked faces. There is a photographic quality as if capturing the weathered souls of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath.
What I call socio-noir is present in particular for Panic In the Streets. The film works as much as social commentary as it does dark crime drama, with protagonists and anti-heroes. Panic in The Streets is in keeping with the police documentary moral where the hero, Lt Clint Reed M.D. sets out on a righteous path as savior. He is incorruptible and courageous.
Along with the trains cutting through the grungy metallic night in the city and its din, the film creates the unwashed environment and the oily screechy noises of movement. struggling people trying to survive. Desperate criminal elements abound amidst the sounds of blaring ship horns coming into dock. The city is an alive filth stained entity.
There is evidence of Kazan’s attitude crystallized when dialogue towards the end refers to community and what that truly means. Kazan shows us cityscapes and panoramic views to evoke how people can be swallowed up by the enormity of urbanization. An urbanized society is split by class and race.
The people in these city settings do their unnamed tediums, and rituals, sitting solemnly at bars, sitting outside the building on steps and street corners. These are people outside of society as the cinematography would frame them, Living together, collections of tired faces, ethnicities, and class distinctions. The working class, the bureaucrats, the law enforcers, and the riffraff feed off the weaker of the herd.
There is an extreme juxtaposition of the clean lily white suburbia that Richard Widmark’s character Lt Reed, lives in, to the filthy environmental mechanisms of the inner city dweller. Reed comes home to a freshly scrubbed house, a refined and virtuous wife in a pristine neighborhood, the idealism of post-World War II America. With all the amenities that are afforded the white-collar social class.
Even Paul Douglas’ hardened cop Capt. Warren, at first feels standoffish about the naval officer Dr Reed invading his territory. There is an obvious hierarchy amongst who serves the community. Questions of rank of the military, and education background amongst the civil servants and professionals.
Captain Warren’s dynamic of feeling threatened by the authority of a possible Naval Academy Elite and the hard-working class cop on the beat. The struggle of power between the two coming to terms with working with each other.
Panic In The Streets is less about the pneumonic plague and more about the way people are reacting to each other around the situation. It is the catalyst for them to expose their inner demons and fears. Mistrust and paranoia. The need for self-preservation. Blackie’s character is a very paranoid personality, that symbolizes the mistrust of a society that would cheat him out of what he perceives to be rightfully his.
The story begins one night in the slums when the ruthless criminal and paranoid Blackie aided by his miscreant cohorts kills Poldi’s illegal immigrant cousin who Blackie believes cheated at cards because he won too much money. Once again the angular rock-jawed Jack Palance projects himself as an imposing Minotaur who holds sway over his subordinated companions. Within this community, there are hierarchical sub-structures set up in order for the vicious opportunistic Blackie to maintain survival and control.
What wasn’t known at the time of Poldi’s cousin’s murder was that he was already dying of the plague by the time his body was dumped like garbage.
The next morning on the docks a child shows the cops where the dead body is. Lt Dr Clint Reed of the Public Health Service confirms that the dead man had pneumonic plague. In order to prevent an epidemic of catastrophic proportions, Clint and Capt. Warren, must hunt down the killers, and inoculate anyone who came in contact with them all in the span of 48 hours. This they must struggle with under secrecy, holding the news agency at bay as not to panic the public, chase off the carriers of the plague and thus create chaos in the streets. They are also met with resistance and suspicion by the very community, a melting pot of ethnicity they are trying to help.
We see dock workers and ships populated by foreigners. We hear a comment made about the dead man being a foreigner after they bring the body on a gurney through the back hospital entrance. Kazan uses a semi-documentary style, constructing a neo-urban naturalistic environment. Framing the story on a mis en scene proscenium stage. We see real people going about their daily lives, along the fault lines of the surrounding class and ethnic differences in the community.
The two medical examiners are more concerned about where and what to eat for lunch, while there’s a dead man lying on the table. For them it’s business as usual, they show no empathy.
The city has taken a life, and these two medical examiners are just doing a job, while the only thought is about food and getting their needs met as a priority. After discussing the sexy waitress that one has his sights on, one of the guys says that it might take longer than he expected. Another man comes in and asks “Is that the foreigner that they brought in?” Again, emphasis on otherizing this human being.
The examiner named Cleaver orders the less attentive man to get out. He realizes something doesn’t look right with the body. Then Clint Reed is called in to look at slides. Photographs are snapped. He’s asked who else has come in contact with the body. He wants everyone inoculated. The FBI doesn’t have any info on the man. But obviously, he was carrying something infectious. He also wants to know if it was the bullet or the infection that killed the foreigner.
Kazan himself a Turkish immigrant used a lot of social commentary on the American Dream, the people who live outside the context of that framework, and how foreigners were treated here in the U.S. when after World War II the fear of foreigners was rampant. In Panic in The Streets, they carry the plague. They are dirty and suspicious. They represent a dangerous element.
Clint is now sitting around a table of suits. He is relating a tale about a woman in 1924 who was carrying a disease that killed 26 people, who died suddenly and horribly from an outbreak. The disease was found to be pneumonic plague, a pulmonary form of the black death, of the middle ages.
One of the men sitting at the table is asking “Who is he” about Lt. Clint Reed. Reed asserts himself with authority in this room of skeptics. “One of the jobs of this department is to keep plagues out of this country. This kind of plague can be spread easily like the common cold. Through sneezing”
“The committee is asking why are you telling us this.” “Because this morning the police found a man who was infected with this disease.” “Our reports show the man died of 2 bullet wounds” “Regardless of what the police surgeon said, he would have died within 12 hours.”
Paul Douglas as Capt. Warren is at the table. He’s arguing that he did die from 2 bullet holes. The mayor and the other men around the table want them to check but Lt Clint Reed tells them that he had the body destroyed. Cremated so as not to spread the infection. The men seem outraged. There is a power struggle going on about who is in control of this situation. Panic is very much a film about control.
Everyone has been isolated and inoculated but there’s still one man “The man who killed him” whoever dumped him might be walking around with incipient plague at this moment. Capt. Warren exudes his disdain and is being stubborn, he doesn’t feel that there’s going to be a problem. But Lt. Reed insists “We have 48 hours. If the killer is incubating the plague then time will be running out. before it spreads amongst the city. You’ll have the makings of an epidemic.”
He burned all the dead man’s possessions because they were contaminated too, so they don’t have the identity of this man. The commissioner is saying that the police department can’t be held responsible for it. Captain Warren is highly skeptical and the commissioner is only concerned about his own accountability. They can’t find an unnamed man in 48 hours. The commissioner doesn’t believe Dr. Reed and acts like he’s making a big deal out of it. He tells the mayor, if you want to believe him then give the story to the press. Then Dr Reed says “I may be an alarmist. but I’ve seen this disease work and it can spread all over the entire country and the result would be worse than anything you could ever imagine.” Reed implores them that the key to the whole thing lies here, now and what they decide to do with the next 48 hours will be crucial. They ask Lt Reed “What can we do?”
Reed says “Find this man” and so the plot becomes focused on finding Blackie before he can spread certain catastrophic diseases. They all leave saying that they will give Reed their full cooperation, but Captain Warren remains behind with his hand on his chin while Lt Reed remains seated at the table.
Warren asks Reed “An Annapolis Man?” he answers No, Why? Warren says “No reason” but he’s got a quizzical look on his face. His question of whether Reed went to the elite military school shows the rift between the two Warren says “Now I’d start worrying what you’re going to do when we don’t turn up your boy” and mentions again, he doesn’t want him to think he’s one of the sailors in his navy. Again we start to see some kind of class battle, a distinction between the two men.
Outside in the hallway, a reporter starts snooping, but they brush him off. Shades of trouble come about from the right of the press to full disclosure and the responsibility these people have to the public’s safety. What is good for them? Again we see a paradigm of hierarchy at work.
At the police station Mostel’s character Fitch who is no stranger to the police is being questioned. He says “You can’t do this to me I’m a US citizen, I got rights.” Here again, is the assertion of the foreigner being alien and the paranoia of the American people that their rights will be taken away by the people in positions of power, the U.S. Government, and most especially the foreign element.
They shove the photo of the dead guy at Fitch. He says he hasn’t seen that guy“ he’s interrupted, “Where were you, fat boy? I think you’re a constitutional liar” Again, the patriotic ethnocentric zeitgeist is evoked during the exchange.
Capt. Warren is back at the morgue with Lt Reed~ they think he might have been Armenian, Czech, or mixed blood. Reed tells them to notify the immigration authorities immediately. They find traces of rust, fish, and shrimp on him which shows that he might have come in on a boat. Warren still annoyed at Reed, says “unless he walked through a fish market, bought 5 pounds of shrimp, and brushed against a freshly painted fire escape.” Warren is still so resistant to help Reed and doesn’t want his company or input at all. Reed insists that Warren get inoculated like everyone else.
Reed gets to assert his manliness by making Warren take his shot because he told the commissioner, and Warren just got through telling the other cop in the room why the boys had to take their shots when they were complaining and Warren barks “because the commissioner said so” Reed says ” roll it up” makes him roll up his sleeves. Again, the film asserts that control is an underlying issue at play. The dynamic between these two men going head to head is building and you can tell that Warren comes across like a strong-willed Bull Mastif but we sense that he is a decent man with principles of his own. “Half the two-bit criminals in town are in the precinct. Sneak thieves, wife beaters, and pickpockets. It isn’t going to work though”. Reed gets mad. “Why are you doing it this way then if it isn’t going to work?” Warren tells him that he’s rounding up all the usual suspects because it’s the only way he can make progress in finding the dead man’s identity. Warren then accuses Reed of making this case a big issue just to make a name for himself.
Reed asks Warren to come to have coffee across the street. Now in the diner. “Look Captain do you have a family, are you married?” “No, my wife died 8 years ago.” We start to get a closer look inside this man Warren. Kazan loves to build his characters, to unfold them like an artichoke heart, peeling away the layers, until we see the core. Reed is trying to appeal to Warren’s human side, the family man.
“The doctors said it was neuralgia but it was a brain tumor.” This reveals a bit more of the picture of Warren’s mistrust of doctors. Reed replies “You don’t think much of me as a doctor do you” Warren shoots back “You keep asking questions you finally get answers. NO.” So we see Warren not only has a dislike for military snobs, but a mistrust of doctors as well. Reed’s just a plain working-class slob, a cop who is trying to sort through the trash of human debris that he comes across. Warren again says “Civil Service, you get a pension, what do you make?” Reed says it runs about the same as police.
Capt. Warren frowns, he looks like he took a hit. “Look this man obviously came off a boat, he was obviously smuggled into the country. They probably don’t want to talk to the police, they’ve been coming to the docks and the streets but no one is talking.” “Maybe they want to talk to their mothers,” Warren says, then Reed “Offer them a reward, promise them immunity for information. Bring in another set of experts from Washington to help me out. Well, you could use it.” “You’ll never see the day,” says Warren glaring proudly. Reed gets frustrated. “I’m not gonna wait til the facts penetrate that thick skull of yours, there just isn’t that much time”
Now at a dingy laundromat, Fitch runs, up to a woman, his wife, who says “Blackie makes you tag around like a dog on a leash. He’s a big goon.” “He pays me,” Fitch asks if his bags are packed. She says “Why don’t you stand up to him sometime? Why don’t you tell him off.” He says “Angie will you shut up! Why don’t you go inside.” She says she doesn’t want to be alone with that big Ape Blackie,
Fitch calls out “he’s coming down the stairs.” He doesn’t want Angie hanging around. He doesn’t like a smart cracking dame. He yells at her to get away from the washing machines. Fitch keeps insisting to Blackie that they should leave the city, they’re picking everybody up. He wants to know why Poldi hasn’t shown. Fitch tells him “He’s got a date with a dame”. Concerned Blackie says “Where’d he get the doe? You know I got a hunch about him. They’re not gonna pick me up. You see those machines. That’s business. Legitimate even. They ain’t gonna pick up a legitimate businessman.”
Blackie begins to rant. Argues, Fitch tells him that they’re picking up legitimates. “They’re picking everybody up?” “Why, why are they picking everybody up Fitch why? You don’t know. You got a high school education you’re a smart fella. This guy Kolchak (the dead man) is just a floater. He gets off a boat, gets very unsocial, even pulls a knife that he’s gonna use on Poldi. So they turn the town upside down for one crumb. They got every cop in town huffin and puffin, trying to find out who he is. Why are they doing it?”
Fitch says he doesn’t know. “Well, I’ll figure it out for you. I got a hunch he brung something in. I got a hunch he brung something in and they’re looking for it.” Blackie’s alienation is beginning to grow, he suspects he is being cheated out of something big, that rightfully should be his. This man is filled with Egomania. Classic anti-social behavior. He continues his rant.
“Only he ain’t got it, and you know why. Cause friend Poldi’s got it.” Fitch comes back at him “Poldi do you think he’d do something like that? He’s his cousin ain’t he? I told you I had a hunch about that guy.” Blackie snorts back. Fitch sweating says “look Poldi is a nice guy he wouldn’t do something like that.”
“Poldi is trying to put something over on me, I saved his life and that’s how he repays me.” Blackie is paranoid, big dark, and brooding. He tells Fitch there’s one thing he doesn’t like, Fitch says “Sure Blackie” “It’s somebody trying to put something over on me. I never liked it”
Now there is a long shot of Blackie sitting at the counter, framed by the landscape, the atmosphere of alienation. He is in black a quiet powder keg and Fitch l in the backdrop going out the door looking so small and insignificant. The shot frames how the power is manifested by Palance’s character and Mostel is just a periphery character powerless and subordinate. Again we hear train whistles. Trains symbolize the ever-changing movement, the transients of urban city life. We now see Blackie all alone in the cluttered unattractive room. Sitting alone. A man with thoughts on his mind, paranoid, greedy, and angry.
A seaplane lands. We see the Nile Queen. The captain of the Nile Queen denies that the man could have been on his ship. “I’m not calling you a liar, I’m calling you a fool. Most of your crew will be dead.” The captain won’t listen. Warren and Clint look over the people on board. They look away. There are almost 200 “rats” on the ship. He yells “See, you might be carrying plague.” Rats, a double entendre.
The captain yells for the men to get back to work. but the crew says they want to hear what Clint Reed has to say. “Never mind what he says.” But the crew resists and fights ensue. Chaos. “Break out the weapons. You’re inciting my men to mutiny. I’m the master here.” Again the prevailing hegemony of xenophobia in this film is highlighted. An Asian man says, one of the cooks is down with a fever. “Right now I want to put everyone in quarantine.” They inoculate them. “They got on in Iran. They just dumped him over the side.”
Another Asian cabin boy brings the men food. “They ever talk about anything else. They want a shish kabob.” He asks what it is. “Lamb on a stick, some of the Greek and Armenian restaurants serve it.” Warren hoped they had a lead to the eats place where the illegal immigrants who got smuggled on board would have gone to get food. Athena Cafe they’ve covered 11 joints and had no luck.
At the Athena Cafe, the diner owner’s wife says to her husband in the back kitchen, about Kolchak that Poldi brought him. She says he was contagious but tells Warren and Reed that we know nothing. “I got a headache”. Although the man wants to tell them who Kolchak was, he does not.
Warren and Reed get into the car. Blackie comes up along the street. A midget tells him they found Poldi. He gives the little man money and rubs his head like a child. Blackie goes inside, Fitch says “I found him.” Blackie says what’s that smell. Have you been trying that stuff on your head again Fitch? Blackie takes a piece of food and asks if it’s been touched yet. Ironically Blackie’s paranoia extends to his being a germaphobe as well. The food had been touched by a foreigner.
Now it’s nighttime and the cops find a very sick person in the emergency, a high fever case. The cops call out to Captain and Reed. Another woman is sick fever case. The Athena owner’s wife. They run up the stairs of the tenement, it’s too late- she is dead. They have to quarantine the whole apartment. “Dr put down on death certificate tentative pneumonia. That’ll have to do for now. Clothes will have to be burned”. All of a sudden the Greek owner comes in and calls for Rita. asks for his wife. Reed looks disturbed. “Where is she.” “What you do. I can’t let you go in there.” “Your wife is dead” “She can’t be, you lie. She said she just don’t feel good.”
“Remember me Matharis. We showed you a picture. If you told us the truth the chance your wife alive.” “Poldi brought him. Kolchak. Gloria Hotel. Find Poldi” They run down the stairs. Tell the police to get a list of people in the food place. Nobody in or out and then they speed away to the Gloria Hotel, the reporter Neff hears them and goes after them. They ask to be taken to Poldi’s room.
Neff confronts them. Why wasn’t this story released to the press? “I figure you guys running around town, he probably had smallpox or cholera.” Reed reasons with him. Tells him it’s the plague. “We can’t let you have the story.” “With the chance of an epidemic. You guys are crazy. You’ve wasted a day. I represent the public. No two-bit civil servant.” Reed says “There’s a chance we can contain it.” Warren tells the cop to take Neff into custody and luckily finds out the editor doesn’t have the story yet, Reed asks the police officers on the scene if Neff can make trouble, and they said Warren would be lucky to get a job mopping floors.
By now, we have a sense of how foreigners are dirty, mistrustful, and alien to us, even when the one cop jokes about liking shish kabob. The foods are unfamiliar. The foreigners don’t trust the Americans, cops, doctors, and vice versa, This film shows the disconnect and separation between immigrants and the America they live in.
Reed goes home for a bit to get some rest and is met by his wife. “Don’t come any closer. Another contagion case. Another uniform to be decontaminated.” “You didn’t catch it yourself hon, you look a little beat.” “Yeah, I look so good normally.” He blows up at her. He spent the money for the cleaner’s bill on the reward money. “Whenever you’re tired you think I’m scolding.” “I spent it on something for the dept. You can put in a voucher No one has figured how to get money back from the U.S. gov. I have to go out again” Gruffs, “Just get me some coffee.” He looks at a piece of furniture being refinished in his yard and taps it. This is part of his real life before this filthy mess. This belongs to his clean life.
He didn’t call his wife last night. “It’s a plague case.” “Here in New Orleans? At least they have you, you’ve been through it.” “Now look hon, let’s not be little miss sunshine.” “We went through it in California.” “What’s eating you?” “I’m tired and fed up” “Stick around, just afraid if I lie down I’ll fall asleep. If I fall asleep I’m dead. Just don’t let me fall asleep. Today I took a perfectly nice guy, a cop not particularly bright, but what do I do, I push him around, make a lot of smart cracks about him. And I tell him off all day long. He winds up proving he’s 4 times the man I am. I do the same thing to you. Why do I do that?”
Capt. Warren meets Reed on the corner. Reed tells the mayor that Warren arrested the reporter Neff on his orders. Someone starts talking about how a woman died last night in their own community. Reed yells, “Community. what community, do you think you’re living in the middle ages.”
“If they alert the media the man carrying the plague will leave.” All these men in power are only concerned about their portion of the responsibility. “Anybody that leaves here can be in any city within 10 hours. I can leave here today and be in Africa tomorrow and whatever disease I had would go right with me” The mayor says “I know that”~“Well think about it when you’re talking about communities we’re all in the community, the same one.” Reed who is finally smiling asks Warren for a cigarette and says “Take the pack.” He finally sees Reed as a regular guy fighting the same bureaucracy he does. This comment about community, I suspect is Kazan injecting his point of view about the universal ideal of what community truly means into the film.
The chief couldn’t hold Neff and admits that he agrees with Reed but he couldn’t stop him. They’ll have 4 hours before it hits the papers. and Neff can color the story any way he wants. One of the other cops says he will be in the morning but he has to be honest he’s taking his wife and kids up to the grandmothers they’ll be safer there. Reed says as he turns away, “Well here we go” “Don’t misunderstand he’ll be there, Oh sure he will, never the less here we go, kids are kids.” “Tell you the truth I’m scared to death I want to call Washington and get some help here.”
The next morning, church bells are ringing, and the old woman Poldi’s mother and the midget are walking. The midget brings Poldi’s mama and introduces her to Blackie. He speaks in his unctuous manner “Yes I heard he was sick but I couldn’t find him, mama.” “No, he’s dying. I’m gonna send for a doctor, neighbors already sent.” “No mama this is my doctor he’s the best.” Fitch is helping Poldi drink water. Blackie walks in. “I didn’t want to leave Poldi, I was gonna get ya, but he’s so sick.”
A nurse comes in. She yells at Blackie. This man has to go to the hospital. Blackie says he aint going. High fever. rapid pulse. The nurse tries to convince Blackies doctor that he needs to be in the hospital Fitch says I had an aunt who once went in but never came out. The doctor says “I know these people, they are very superstitious.” Again otherizing them as alien and strange in their ways.
They start to move Blackie down the stairs when Lt. Clint Reed confronts them saying he wants to talk to Poldi. Blackie violently flings Poldi and the mattress off the stairs as if they were mere garbage and runs away with Fitch as we hear the police sirens closing in.
The film is proliferated, as in all his films, Kazan’s proto-naturalistic style within the environments he shoots. Richard Widmark displays an inward discontent while Paul Douglas has a more restrained anger and hardboiled everyman quality. This heterogeneous chemistry between the two actors fuels the film and is as potent as their mission to hunt down the plague-carrying killers from every coastline dump and cheap rooming house.
Jack Palance, whose strong saturnine looks often put him in the role of villain is marvelous as the unmerciful Blackie under Kazan’s directing. The Verite of the grittier moments feel as if we are watching the actors up close on a stage. I’m reminded of Street Car and how much I felt like I was in the room with Blanche when Stanley taunts her ruthlessly.
The narrative is sharp and driving and the tautness of the plot at times sensational, is tense during the investigative process when Warren and Reed interview people from the film’s collection of characters some, brutish misogynists, gruff dock laborers, cliched grinning Chinese ship cooks, worn out street dames and superstitious immigrants who are still living outside of the conventions of the American experience.
At the end Reed returns to his home, back in the neat world that he inhabits with his untainted family, to live out the American dream once again.