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Panic in the Streets:
Another Covid Movie

[1]2,431 words 

Panic in the Streets (1950) is directed by Elia Kazan, and on the surface is a gangster film and often advertised as one. But it’s more of a study of society dealing with an outside threat from a contagious disease.

Set in a wintery New Orleans, a card game in a dive breaks up when one of the players, an illegal immigrant, gets sick and has to leave.

Not good. Poldi and Finch, two players, try to keep him in the game at the behest of Blackie (Jack Palance’s brilliant film debut), who is only seen from the back and has only one line of dialogue — and that’s all he needs. This shadowy presence and his effect on Poldi and Finch show he’s a hood not to be trifled with.

The man leaves, getting sicker, leading to a chase involving a rail yard and the usual menacing film noir street. When the man he flashes a knife, Blackie drops him with one shot.

If this was the gangster film that it’s advertised as being, the action would be about Blackie dealing with the powerful forces behind the immigrant. There are indeed very powerful forces in play here, but they aren’t criminal.

The body is brought in to the coroner’s office for an autopsy, but the procedure ends when a frowning medical examiner breaks a lunch date and calls the Department of Public Health.

The call is to Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), a grouchy doctor who’s enjoying a much-needed day off to be a Dad. He’s barely coping when the phone call comes and he has to put on his uniform and go in, sparring with his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and not letting his son have a quarter for the movies. It’s a grumpy family. Bills have to be paid and economic advancement dangles, but they’re stable, decent, and offer wisecracks with a bitter smile. It is how I remember my family from that time; we weren’t the Cleavers.

Reed examines the body and finds a real problem: pneumonic plague, a twisted sister of the bubonic plague that is transferred by human contact. A large glass wall behind them reveals a flock of cops and hangers-on watching. Reed orders the curtain closed, symbolizing his battle to find whoever has spread the plague and at the same time to keep it hushed up so a panic doesn’t occur.

Reed makes his case before an uncertain but ultimately convinced mayor in an otherwise empty chamber.

Reed needs a handler, and the equally grumpy Detective Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) is assigned. Reed and Warren make a bumpy team. Reed is appalled at the city’s order to drag in every crook and reprobate off the street and grill them to get information, while Warren tells Reed to beat it and let the cops do their job. Reed, despite his dismay, tries to connect with Warren. They hash out a strategy over a cup of coffee, but it’s inconclusive.

Reed breaks the rules. He searches on his own, heading to the docks, where crews are working in a scene that seems to anticipate what will become Kazan’s masterpiece, On the Waterfront. In a grimy and dumpy cafe, Reed gets a clue from a woman sent by her sailor boyfriend so that he can collect the fifty bucks Reed promises for information. Reed confronts the boyfriend, who finally dribbles out information and then chews on his sandwich as Reed inoculates him.

Reed and Warren board a ship leaving for New Orleans, along with a Coast Guard officer. Reed’s hammering of the crew almost starts a mutiny. He finds the source of the plague, quarantines the ship, and then heads back to New Orleans to zero in, starting at a Greek restaurant.

Blackie hasn’t been idle. He collars Finch (a sleazy and whiny Zero Mostel), who had been one of the suspects hauled in for questioning and released. Blackie smells something is up. He thinks the immigrant had some kind of valuable treasure. Why else would the cops be looking for him? The answer, it turns out, is Poldi, who brought the guy in. Blackie questions Poldi. Poldi wants to help, but he doesn’t know anything . . . and he’s feeling kinda sick, y’know?

When Blackie meets with a dame who needs a quick hundred, Poldi bolts, but Blackie only shrugs. “Where is he going to go where we can’t find him?” he tells Finch.

Blackie’s street power is a cold echo of that of the police, reinforcing Blackie as a sort of community leader. He is tough and serpent-like, but also hands out money to the needy, and people come to him for help.

The film becomes a race between Reed and Blackie to get Poldi, but the two never meet until the film’s last few minutes, when a sick Poldi is being carried down from the crummy tenement where his mother lives. When Reed stops Blackie, Blackie and Finch toss Poldi three stories down as his mother shrieks like a wounded animal and then run off as police sirens wail around the corner. There is a final chase and shootout, ending in a coffee warehouse. Blackie is cornered by Reed, whacks him with his pistol, and shoots Finch when he screams he’s giving up. Blackie tries to make it to a ship that is just about to sail, climbing the rope and now sick himself, but fighting with every inch of his manhood to make it.

Police flock to the dock, ready to shoot, but Warren waves them off.

“He’s not going anywhere,” he calmly says as a frantic Blackie, caught on the rope’s ratline, drops into the water.

It’s one of my favorite films and is a good yardstick to study Elia Kazan. One of its great virtues was Kazan’s shooting the film on location in New Orleans, using many locals. I like that the cops look like real cops, and the deadbeats equally so. You catch the New Orleans accent, or the gentle twang of Southern women. It’s good this wasn’t a Tennessee Williams film; there would have been decadence, Southern gothic, and the steamy, sexual allurement of a long, hot summer. Panic in the Streets takes place in winter, and the cinematography is stark and documentary-like.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast. Jack Palance usually gets the kudos with his silky, evil voice and mannerisms, but Richard Widmark is excellent as well, portraying, as Roger Ebert said, his usual “lithe, inward, sardonic” character. Unlike the post-war heel Kirk Douglas specialized in (see my review of Ace in the Hole [2]), Widmark isn’t out to con anyone. Reed is a lonely man carried by his duty, and not sure if society is worth it, but he pulls the law and common man along in his hunt for the plague, almost always against their will.

Paul Douglas is a great character and actor as well. Tom Warner is a good foil to Reed, and there’s an element of toughness and cynicism that works in this film. Douglas, with his deep voice, burly frame, and wary expression expresses a male strength we don’t see anymore. He has a vague resemblance to my father, an ex-state trooper, who had a quiet masculinity I respected. He wasn’t brutal and was respectful, but told me that he used his flashlight in rough traffic stops once in a while when, as he told me, “I had to get my point across.”

Curiously, Kazan didn’t like Douglas. He thought the actor was a blowhard and loud. He also disliked Warner’s character, thinking him a bully.

Kazin had much more sympathy for Blackie, which is typical of filmmakers; they always seem to prefer criminals to the law-abiding. As I noted earlier, Blackie is a kind of civic voice. He’s a crook and a killer, but has a kind of code and masculinity we respect. He’s clever and determined, and his tragedy is that he doesn’t see that the prize everyone is seeking isn’t loot but the plague.

That can be laid at Reed’s feet by his covering up the search in order to avoid a panic. But is Reed wrong in doing this? Again, we’re presented with the noir world of gray. People avoid telling the truth. They stayin the shadows (much of the story deals with illegal immigrants, who of course want to stay undercover; the Bidenesque open borders have yet to appear), even the mayor. When he calls a meeting to check Reed’s progress, it’s in an open-air city square . . . at night.

The reason is mostly because Neff (Dan Riss), a probing (nosy?) reported, finds out that the plague is loose, and Warner has Neff jailed. Reed asks a pair of cops if this could this kill Warner’s career? “What do you think, mister?” one shoots back.

The mayor has to let Neff go, and gives Reed four hours to find the plague’s carrier. The mayor’s right-hand man says he has to take his family out of town, so they’ll be safe. Reed sighs in disgust. “And so it starts.”

This leads to the final confrontation with Blackie and Poldi.

I enjoy the cast. They’re all little people with real problems and conflicts. The ship’s captain Reed puts in quarantine will lose a valuable cargo. A Greek restaurant owner is uneasy, but doesn’t want to finger one of the carriers after being egged into apathy by his strident wife. The mayor is firm and decent, wanting Reed to succeed, but he also has the voters to think of. He sees the fear in his aide and knows what a panic will do to the entire city.

I also liked the women in this film. Barbara Bel Geddes is a very human Nancy, comforting and needling Reed, but a true marriage partner. It’s interesting that although they have small parts in this film, women turn the action: the restaurant owner’s wife, the sailor’s girlfriend (prostitute?) who leads Reed both to him and an important lead in tracing the plague, a nurse sent to check on the sick Poldi. She is ordered out by Blackie, who calls in a disbarred doctor to smooth things over, but the nurse reports the dying Poldi to the Department of Public Health, which causes Reed to confront Blackie. Much like how Finch’s wife bitches and moans about him being a gopher for a cheap hood like Blackie — to Blackie’s face. He menaces her, but she stares back like a cat who gets its bluff on a dog. The idea of fifties women as being dustmops and submissive gets no truck from Kazan. Here, women aren’t caricatures. They’re assertive and give good performances on camera.

The film was considered a failure at the time for having too much realism. For his part, Kazan was very proud of the work, and said if he’d spent more money and Hollywoodized it, it would have made a profit. But Panic in the Streets has been critically praised — another movie that didn’t make it in the first round but redeemed itself with future audiences.

Why do I call it a Covid movie? It deals with fighting a deadly epidemic, and I thought it a good film to contrast the way it is dealt with there with our own, real-world reaction to Covid, much like how I saw a wildcat reporter’s quest to prolong a crisis to keep a story alive in Ace in the Hole. That sounds familiar. Wag the Covid.

There have been movies like Contagion that purport to be about a mass epidemic similar to Covid; almost too much so, say some, since the elements of that film’s crisis came from wildlife in China infecting the food supply and then carrying the illness to America. That’s the official story of how Covid got started, and it’s no surprise that Contagion was conceived out of government research from and was given their full cooperation. In fact, some have hinted that the film might have prepped the public, putting the thought of such an outbreak in their minds and thus making it more believable when it happens. It’s what we in the military call PSYOPS.

Panic in the Streets isn’t that clinical or, we could say, nefarious. Kazan concentrates on the human element. What we see is a race between two men, Reed and Blackie, to find the loot. Reed is determined to stop the epidemic, yet he is frantic not to let the public know lest a panic develop.

Covid, on the other hand, seemed to rely on the media fanning the fires of panic as much as possible. In Kazan’s story, the officials conduct a methodical search to isolate and corner the sick. Our reaction to Covid was to force a lockdown on everyone while stimulating a mass, worldwide panic. Reed always comes off as concerned and dedicated; Fauci seemed very happy to step into the limelight after being given the opportunity by Trump (intentionally or unintentionally). In the film, the immigrant community is immediately targeted, and in fact the plague is found on the ship Reed quarantines, especially among the Chinese cooks.

The media and the Left immediately raged against any attempt to control Covid by restricting travel and controlling the immigrant community. In Kazan’s film, immigrants are the carriers of the contagion, and yet it isn’t shown as being xenophobic. Kazan is on the immigrants’ side, but obviously these illnesses come from abroad.

The methodical search for the plague in the film contrasts with the international lockdown we experienced. Such a thing would never enter Reed’s strategy, but 1950 was a healthier world in many ways in terms of health practices, reliance on the press, and civil liberties. Yes, these are uncertain words to offer concerning a film made at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, butwe still see a reasonable world combatting disease.

One thinks of SARS and Ebola and how they were quickly contained and dealt with. Covid, one suspects more and more, seems to have been intentionally let loose. An awful lot of people seem to have got what they wanted out of Covid’s explosion.

As it is, Panic in the Streets is a solid, character-driven drama, one I found much more useful in thinking about Covid than Contagion. But then

I also found plays like Rhinoceros and Enemy of the People enlightening in revealing the strain Covid placed on humans. It’s a seems to be a study in mass psychosis, as recent discussions have suggested.

Kazan’s black-and-white world is stark and truthful. I prefer it to our colorized one, hampered by misperception.

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