Kazan takin' it to the streets
By Michael Roberts
"The essence of the stage is concentration and penetration. Of the screen action, movement, sweep."
~ Elia Kazan
In 1950 Elia Kazan went to New Orleans for a Darryl Zanuck project, the gritty doco-noir Panic In The Streets, with a screenplay by Richard Murphy, the writer of his other location noir, Boomerang of 3 years earlier,. The story was supplied by Edward and Edna Anhalt, who also supplied Edward Dymytrk's gritty The Sniper soon after. The two stories share a psychological dimension and comment on the relationship between the community and the institutions trusted to care and protect their shared values. Film noir seems to have become the natural terrain for leftist social concerns as primarily the stories, by their nature, will deal with poor people, the working class and when combined with the influence of neo-realist filming techniques provides a rich visual milieu in which to work. Kazan cast Richard Widmark as a sympathetic lead, moving him away from the harder, criminal roles with which he'd made his name, and filled the villain's role with the screen debut of Jack Palance, one of the more menacing and memorable heavies in all of noir in his muscular and edgy portrayal of Blackie.
If The Sniper looked at a threat that came from 'inside' the community, then Panic In The Streets examines a threat from 'outside' in the form of a biohazard, pneumonic plague. In a time when paranoia was running high because of the communist witch-hunts the idea of something being carried in from overseas to pollute the American homeland was particularly apposite. In a way the virus equates to communism, and the hero is a military doctor, protecting the population, and what he is fighting for is made clear in the introduction of Doctor Reed (Richard Widmark) who is spending quality time with his young son i.e. this is what we fight and work for. Kazan's opening is a stunning sequence of pure noir, wet night streets, a seedy card game and a chase across the train tracks to the docks, and is shot and lit in a couple of long continuous takes. This is bravura cinema, and Kazan credits advice from John Ford in improving his feel for working outside of the theatre environment, as Ford told him to get to the set earlier than anyone else and get to know how the space affects the playing of the scene. He also advised him to think in terms of silent cinema, to tell the story with pictures rather than words, and Kazan took his work to new levels, improving on his previous location noir Boomerang, particularly in the chase sequences.
Kazan also continued to apply the tenets of Italian neo-realism in using non-professional actors in supporting roles, using actual locations with found lighting and presenting the working classes honestly and in all their naturalism. The film is presented as a 'procedural', and the doctor is the catalyst for driving Captain Warren (Paul Douglas) a skeptical cop to make key decisions in containing an outbreak of panic as well as tracking the source of the virus. Warren goes so far as to suppress the free speech of the fourth estate by locking up a journalist who sniffs out a story relating to the outbreak, leading to a moral crisis in the institutions controlling the investigation and bringing up questions of the public's right to know. Reed begins to waver in his resolve and what the dilemma is costing his new found ally in Warren, but his bedrock is his wife, and again Kazan plants a delicate scene with Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes playing the wife as a reminder of what he's fighting for. The scene is a very mature and sophisticated portrayal of married love and commitment, not something associated with Hollywood in the '50s.
The film also eloquently speaks to an America also forcibly prodded out of a pre-war isolationist stance, a country that delayed it's joining of the fight against Nazism until Japan forced its hand. A country where isolationism is a big part of the national psyche is particularly open to the scare provided by a foreigner bringing in an unwelcome and essentially invisible Trojan horse. Kazan subtly fights against this tacit xenophobia by showing a New Orleans packed with immigrant faces, different cultures and a variety of skin colour, a melting pot that also speaks to a future America to anyone paying attention. One of Kazan's colourful brigade is Zero Mostel, who plays Fitch, a petty criminal associate of Blackie's. Mostel was later blacklisted and after this year he didn't work in films for several years, Kazan says he was aware there was a stain on Mostel as far as the studio was concerned but hired him anyway. According to Kazan a postscript occurred some time after Kazan's HUAC testimony, where he had 'named names', when he bumped into Mostel unexpectedly and they had a drink together, but Mostel put his hands around Kazan's throat a couple of times and said 'why did you do it'? They never spoke again. Mostel played the part of a blacklisted actor in Martin Ritt's examination of those years in the excellent 1976 film The Front.
Blackie reacts to information that the police are on high alert by assuming the dead sailor was concealing something valuable and attempts to get his hands on it himself, in much the same way Kiss Me Deadly confused a fatal MacGuffin with a mystery box. In a way it sets its own version of science versus mysticism, medicine versus voodoo as the Doctor battles the dimensions of a disease that resonates all the way to the dark ages. --- In an era of post Covid 19 where the world experienced a real pandemic and saw just what levels of ignorance, fear and loathing some people could sink to, it's instructive to see what attitudes were decades ago. --- Kazan underscores the relation to the black death 'plague' in the denouement by having Blackie attempt to board a ship like a rat up a rope, only to have the rope keep him off as designed. Palance's performance is superb, not overplaying the tough guy, but making it clear that violence is his stock in trade, and Mostel is great as the swarthy Fitch in support. Paul Douglas (so good as the beat cop in Hathaway's superb Noir 14 Hours ) is solid as the cop, Bel Geddes touching as the loyal wife and Widmark showed his versatility by bringing energy and authority to a good guy part, after essaying mostly noir villains like his spiv/tout in Jules Dassin's (that other leftist, New York theatre personality blacklistee) Night and The City that same year.
Joseph MacDonald's cinematography is superb, evocative and fluid, and is beautifully balanced by Alfred Newman's dynamic score. MacDonald was a Ford veteran from My Darling Clementine and was part of the company Kazan took over at short notice when Ford dropped out of Pinky after the first weeks of filming with an alleged illness. Panic In The Streets represents an odd noir piece in that there is no 'femme fatale' and in a true Hawks-ian way the professionals are shown to be competent and capable of triumphing over the virus and the criminals in a completely unromantic and realistic way. Kazan grew as a visual filmmaker with this production, able to extract the maximum from all the disparate elements required to assemble a feature film and was in the middle of one of the hottest streaks in the history of the form, and with his life about to be complicated by pressure from his own government in the shape of its odious HUAC committee.