|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.
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|Rating: The Good – 77.4
Duration: 87 mins
Director: Raoul Walsh & Bretaigne Windus
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, Ted de Corsia
Scintillating and genuinely disturbing gangster movie which focuses on the “outfit” at a critical and frightening point in its evolution: the emergence of the contract killing. It opens as Humphrey Bogart’s district attorney is holding up with his federally protected witness on the eve of a big trial against a peculiar incarnation of the modern crime world. When the witness’ fear for his life escalates to panic, the unfortunate consequences force Bogart to go back to square one and retrace the investigation from the first day. As the first of many nesting doll flashbacks dissolves into frame, we pick up with a young hoodlum surrendering himself to the police for the murder of his girlfriend. As he recounts the incident, he slowly lifts the lid on a gruesomely methodical enterprise which had hitherto been incomprehensible to the early 1950’s law enforcement. A carefully orchestrated system of murder-for-hire run by a shadowy figure of the underworld who hands his orders out over the phone to his trusted lieutenant, Rico (Ted de Corsia). As we observe this system operate, we gain an intimate insight into everything from the disturbing manner in which they recruit more killers and assign the various jobs (the recent sci-fi thriller Looper most certainly borrowed a few ideas here) to their chilling use of traditional business terminology such as “contracts”, “troops”, and “hits” to disguise their dirty work. It may be second nature to use these terms nowadays but hearing them used for “the first time” and listening to Rico explain their logic and derivation to his minions of hit-men is chilling business.
Though made in the 50’s, directer Raoul Walsh’s pedigree in the 1930’s gangster genre seems to give this more noir-esque thriller a broader base. The web of interconnected bad guys, the moral and social implications of the subject matter, and the more classical lighting and set design all contribute to this. Martin Rackin’s screenplay is infused with all the nervous energy and callousness of hitmen’s “troop” but it’s neatly counterbalanced by the intensity of D.A. Bogart’s focus. There are few iconic lines but nothing is wasted and all drive the nail home. The Enforcer is one of the few films not defined by Bogart’s presence. That’s partly down to the extensive back-story which takes place before his character comes into play. But it’s also down to Bogart’s contentment to play it a little easier than he did in his more legendary roles. It’s still a nice little turn though and Walsh knew exactly how to let his presence simmer in the background. So, when the loop to this elaborate tail is finally closed, we’re only too happy to see Bogart there waiting to do the honours. But for all the wonderful characters and top actors on show, what sells this is the unique story. It’s more than engaging, it’s enthralling. And all the time quite frightening.
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