Since lockdown began, filmmakers have been relentlessly trying to capture the COVID moment. They’ve attempted to find something true through contained runtimes and single-location settings, through the absurdity inherent in our technology-filled isolation, through our fears and frustrations. But most of them fail, and fail badly. They confuse us with tone, piss us off with flippancy, bop us on the nose with obvious allegory. But of all the bad indie rom-coms, disaster movies, zombies movies and sci-fi movies to handle massive viral outbreaks, the films that hit hardest are those focused on the difficulty of dealing with disparate groups of people masquerading as a whole—perhaps the most affecting and disheartening takeaway from the current pandemic. That calls for a change in genre. Panic in the Streets’ distinctly American take on a pandemic response succeeds by couching its honest read in the broad postwar pessimism and hardboiled individualism of film noir.
Director Elia Kazan’s 1950 murder caper is quintessential noir: Grim themes and snappy quips, shot in the shadows of the underclass. It’s also familiarly flavored with worried cries of epidemics, disbelieving officials, protective tribalism and begrudging inoculations. Helping that frustrating feeling of reality—not something always present in noir’s heightened pulp—is Panic in the Streets’ cast of (non-)actors that actually look like rough-and-tumble locals. Kazan shot on location in New Orleans and only brought in 12 of the 112 actors with speaking parts from out of town. It’s tangible, sweaty, tense and properly worrisome; when shooting victim Kochak (Lewis Charles) is discovered to be patient zero of a pneumonic plague, and his only unaccounted-for contact is the man who shot him, it feels more real than its melodramatic logline.
Maybe that’s because its central character dynamic comes from something as dryly relatable as institutional friction. The Oscar-winning story from Edna and Edward Anhalt follows Lieutenant Commander Reed (Richard Widmark), a U.S. Public Health Service doctor who buddies up with gruff cop Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to save the public from disaster. To do so, he runs into issues of (mis)communication and (un)cooperation between the press, the police, the government’s health services and the public’s various economic and racial factions. Basically, issues any modern American will feel in their bones.
The most frustrating confrontation comes up top. Reed meets with a selection of bigwigs at the mayor’s office, recounting the 1924 L.A. plague outbreak to try to scare them into action. His explanation is almost immediately interrupted by bureaucrats skeptical of his Fauci-like authority. “Who did you say he was?” one whispers. The cops are thickheaded. Warren insists over and over that the victim died from the two bullet wounds in his chest, apparently never having heard of a communicable disease before. Reed all but pulls his hair out—in a way that’ll resonate with anyone who’s read people disingenuously semanticizing on their Facebook feed about people dying “with” COVID or “from” COVID—as the top cop says flat-out that he doesn’t believe the guy with the medical degree.
Widmark’s fantastic at selling his reactions. Reed, a self-described alarmist because it’s the goddamn plague, is operating on high alert. He’s a string-bean of justice, a Jimmy Stewart who didn’t have his coffee that morning. He sneers at the morons around him, tugging at their hands like stubborn children at the grocery store as he walks them through the situation. He understands that it’s off-putting. People don’t want to believe they’re in the middle of something serious, something that will take serious manpower and billable hours to solve. But Widmark’s deep breaths, fidgety posture, rock-ridged brow and near-frenzied voice is desperate despite the futility. All he can do is state his case and hope his expertise is believed.
We’re on his side, and not just because he’s the only one that knows what the hell he’s talking about. Throughout, he gets touching, realistic scenes of marital strife and intimacy, of FOMO and of doubt, that endear him to us. He has to push his wife away because of his proximity to the disease. But he perseveres, driven by the kind of spiteful, burned-out honor that noir paints over its heroes’ typical self-righteousness. He wants to believe the best in people, but he’s already had most of his good faith battered out of him. People want to believe what is easy, and tend to move in herds.
That makes it all the more miraculous when the mayor listens to Reed, and tells those under his command to follow suit. The foot-dragging “I’m under orders” attitude Warren sports looks an awful lot like the bare-minimum enforcement and information doled out by red states, throwing their citizenry under the COVID bus for Trumpian brownie points. But even if this incipient pandemic is reluctantly believed by other government workers, they’re not even close to being the only people that need convincing.
But that convincing isn’t going to be coming from the press. The newspapers are the provocateurs of the titular Panic, after all. They can’t get the story! Panic in the Streets isn’t entirely unsympathetic to journalism—the mayor acknowledges the larger ideological danger of suppressing information—but when Warren risks his badge to lock up a reporter, it’s sold to us as a show of solidarity with Reed. His actions presumably earn them a few more hours to find the infected murderer without stirring up a riot. But the fact that Warren and Reed both know a riot could come, and that so many different parts of the city will react in mistrustful ways, reveals an age-old truth about the relationship the haves and have-nots hold with Uncle Sam.
To do so, Panic in the Streets cynically boils America down to its melting pot core. The port city is a bustling immigrant hub, filled with Greek restaurateurs, Chinese kitchen workers, Armenian gangsters and blue-collar sailors from all over the world—none of whom are particularly keen on talking to the WASPy authorities and all of whom are at the biggest risk of exposure. Reed tries to talk to a ruddy mass of white and Black sailors at the National Maritime Union hall, announcing a reward of $50 for information, only gaining traction through fear. A concerned wife leads him to the Nile Queen, the scallywags aboard brawling with their “shut up and get back to work” bosses so they can find out whether or not their lives are in danger. I’m sure plenty of frontline workers would relate. Then, the culture clash continues: A cabin boy is forthcoming but stuck behind a language barrier; what information he can provide involves Kochak enjoying shish-kabob, a dish Warren has never even heard of.
Reed lends a hand with the first problem, while a beat cop solves the second. There’s a constant push-pull between the empowered and the everyman—the ship captain and the deckhand—with Reed uneasily straddling the line. For every syringe he injects into a burly seaman, there’s an feverish Armenian-American being described as “very superstitious” by doctors, or an older Greek-American woman who turns Reed’s warnings away, only to be fatally punished for her ignorance. The ever-present tension of discrimination, the information-sapping otherization that takes out our disaster responses at the knees, is on full display—a greater antagonist, at times, than the actual killers.
Those killers are small-time gangsters, who popped Kochak after the blighted man stumbled out of a card game. Kochak was originally named Ramon Sanchez; this pivot to focus on a Greek and Armenian enclave gave Kazan a personal tie, himself a Greek immigrant from Istanbul. Though there’s something a bit odd about this focus considering the city and its demographics, it serves as a reminder that whiteness will not save you from ostracization. It’s among these families that we meet businesspeople more trusting of their friendly neighborhood tough Blackie (Jack Palance in his screen debut) than of anyone in uniform. Palance leads his faction with ambition thinly wrapped in a compassionate veneer, using it all to his selfish advantage as he evades capture.
Kazan brought in Palance from his original Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire, where Palance understudied Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Palance’s move to the big screen couldn’t have been in a better role. He’s warm and intimidating as Blackie, a perfect heavy that leans over his lackeys and strikes with a cobra smile. His voice is calm and low, measured yet insistent—the bumblings of Zero Mostel and Guy Thonajan make Palance’s steely coolness more frightening. His speech settles like dark liquor on an empty stomach. He skids on gravel, kicks in windows, climbs and scales mooring. It’s a jarringly physical performance from a former soldier, boxer and coal miner—the kind of actor that doesn’t exist anymore, preparing us for a brilliant career.
It’s in Palance’s hardscrabble looking-out-for-number-oneness that we see the flip of Reed. He’s a murderer, yes, but he’s also a turncoat: Blackie dumps his sick crony over a second-floor staircase railing, and blasts an elderly warehouse watchman he was chumming around with only seconds before. Though he’s ignorant to his own medical status, he’d infect anyone and everyone as long as he kept making money.
Meanwhile, Reed—a newly expecting father who wages war against seemingly everyone in the city in order to save them—storms after him, trying to warn him of his infection despite the danger. He’s loyal to the greater good. He’s got a mature view of the postwar world, a global outlook far more integrated and technologically linked than the isolationism rampant in the U.S. just a decade before. When the cops badger him about informing the locals, despite the danger of the murderer fleeing, Reed erupts:
“Do you think you’re living in the Middle Ages?” he spits. “Anybody who leaves here can be in any city in the country within 10 hours.”
With all the ships ready to set sail out of the Big Easy, Blackie could leave the country, infecting an entirely different continent before he perished. Reed’s passion isn’t for New Orleans in particular, but for human safety at large: “We’re all in a community, the same one!” If this sentiment feels a little trite for a noir, remember that this is a man-against-the-world tale where only one guy can see the bigger picture.
Kazan and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald help us see it too, crafting an inhabited city so filled with life that you can’t help comprehend the consequences of viral spread. Excellent blocking compliments and complicates long scene durations: As actors navigate the full depth of the frame, with the camera sometimes elongating or widening the settings, we get a sure sense of location. Palance chases fleeing henchmen down hallways or emerges from back rooms, shadows playing across his heater-shield face. Kazan uses the height of the set to his gruesome advantage in a fantastic confrontation on a tenement stairwell. A shaky tracking shot watches the escaping killers slide down a warehouse chute and sprint down a corridor stacked high with sacks of coffee, even the sets closing in on them.
We also get to know the character-rich populace that Reed’s fighting for, including Pat Walshe, the actor who led The Wizard of Oz’s flying monkeys, in his final screen appearance. Walshe shares his scenes with the towering Palance, their nearly two-and-a-half foot height difference a physical contrast echoing the rampant chiaroscuro lighting. We see people dying alone, isolated, and we see bustling masses of people, visual triggers for those who’ve survived a pandemic. We see Reed’s asshole neighbor, who puts a bow on the ending by reminding us that even if you’re keeping everyone safe, some jerk will still think he’s better than you. But there’s also a little hope for the influence of the individual: Spending all that time around Reed makes Warren eventually come around, as Douglas’ fist of a face finally unclenches in a final scene.
Panic in the Streets’ plague isn’t contained because of the incredible cooperation between the townspeople, the government health department and the city police. There’s a bit of that, sure: A local nurse alerts Reed which, after a long and casualty-filled chase, brings down the hammer on Blackie. But it’s mostly stopped by greed, stupidity and individual effort. Blackie’s paranoia keeps the spread contained, while his desire for Kochak’s smuggled riches ends up raising the necessary red flags. Warren pisses off his boss, while a sleepless Reed throws himself headfirst into peril. What little trust there is between people is on an individual level, exchanged gruffly and after plenty of effort. In Kazan’s noirish pessimism for how a pandemic would be handled, he and his writers find glints of hard-bitten hope—gemstones in a gravelbed—lurking in egalitarian people willing to stick to their principles. It’s not a romantic notion, no love story of two star-crossed twentysomethings forced into quarantine together. But it is one that feels true, and in that truth, there’s the bittersweet recognition that despite appearances, little has changed since 1950.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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