Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague is spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte in Voices in the Dark (Illini Books) showed how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite; something that drives us but not necessarily in our best interests.  Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

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