|Rating: The Good – 81
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel
Richard Widmark takes on a rare ‘straight down the line’ good guy role in this highly engaging tale of a plague outbreak in New Orleans and a frantic manhunt to capture the criminals who are spreading it. Widmark stars as the Public Health Medical Officer who discovers the disease on the body of a murder victim and must then convince the authorities to orchestrate a secret manhunt so that a mass panic and ensuing spread of the disease by the public is averted. Unfortunately, the murderers, led by the fearsome small time operator Jack Palance, assume the police are chasing some loot that the victim had stashed and begin their own search, causing a small outbreak as they go.
Widmark always had an edge to his game that made him well suited to play the meaner and more heartless characters but that same edge made him a very unique lead. This comes across very well as the underpaid public health officer whose passion for saving the city boils over into often self-defeating impatience with the bureaucratic procedure he faces along the way. The relationship he strikes up with Paul Douglas’ initially suspicious police captain is a focal feature of the film given how the captain’s trust is imperative to an expeditious search and there’s much satisfaction to be had watching the two sparky characters develop a mutual respect for the other’s commitment. Jack Palance is pure strychnine as the paranoid hood full of self-serving duplicity and murderous spite. He’s given us an array of great villains over the years but this easily ranks with his most entertaining.
Panic in the Streets bears all the signifying flourishes of the great Elia Kazan films. The sets are textured and richly lit with the sounds and sultry music of the city streets intermittently spilling over into the dramatic space. This gives the story a personality of its own and one that’s uniquely tailored to the tones and cadences of New Orleans. That a breakneck pursuit is playing out against the city’s languid vibes adds a delicious contrast and even mystique to the film and helps to ramp up the tension when needed. Case in point is that enthralling chase sequence at the climax of the film in which a sweaty diseased Palance streaks mayhem through the harbour area with Widmark, Douglas, and half the police force in chase. Ultimately, it’s this scintillating energy that defines Panic in the Streets but don’t underestimate the level of class that the cast and director bring to the quieter moments. Highly recommended.