PANIC IN THE STREETS
MOVIE: **** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5)
Richard Widmark as LT. CMDR. CLINTON REED
Paul Douglas as CAPT. TOM WARREN
Barbara Bel Geddes as NANCY REED
Jack Palance as BLACKIE
Zero Mostel as RAYMOND FITCH
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Elia Kazan
BY KEVIN CARR
Time and again, I have said one of the best things about reviewing DVDs and Blu-rays is that it gives me a chance to fill the gaps in my film-watching history. Many films – often ones made before I was born – have gone unwatched by me, and their release on home media gives me the opportunity to finally watch them. (I know I should have made it a point to see these movies years ago, but life and work and family has a way of getting in the way. Reviewing them for work gives me the right excuse.)
“Panic in the Streets” is a classic film, recently released on Blu-ray by 20th Century Fox, but it’s not a household name of a movie. It’s not like “Gone with the Wind” or “Citizen Kane.” Rather, it’s a film that aficionados know about and have seen but seems to slip through the cracks when it comes to general discussion.
The film, originally released in 1950, put Jack Palance on the map as a bad guy. Sadly, when he left this realm, the retrospective look at his career left with him, leaving this film to fall through the cracks to the modern generation. However, it’s a great film to bring to light again.
The story follows a military office named Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) who figures out there is a dangerous strain of plague has come into the city of New Orleans. The first victim is murdered, giving the authorities an edge to stop the disease’s spread, but only if they can find the men who committed the murder. Palance stars as the thug Blackie, who has been exposed to the plague and is the target of the investigation to stop its spread, but of course, he’s running from the law for different reasons.
Long before “Outbreak” or “Contagion” showed the chilling possibilities of an aggressive communicable disease, “Panic in the Streets” reminded audiences just how vulnerable we are in a global community. The movie is even more chilling today considering the medicine at that time is sixty years behind what we have now. A strain of plague would do damage in 2013 New Orleans. It would be devastating had it happened in 1950.
Using techniques that would later become standard in outbreak thrillers, “Panic in the Streets” pits the scientist against the government bureaucrat. It shows how difficult it would be to contain the spread of something so devastating without causing the title of the film. Richard Widmark holds his own as the sometimes mousy but determined military man trying to save a city.
On the opposite side of the coin, you have Palance, who earns his reputation as a tough guy by being the most dangerous man in the city. Making him part of the criminal underworld opens up a complication in the plot that increases intrigue. He doesn’t want to be caught for a murder, and by trying to escape, he’s endangering hundreds – if not thousands – of people.
Is the villain the disease? Or is it Palance? The truth is that the villain is both, as well as the complications of letting the information spread and cause a panic. I’ve always had a soft spot for movies that manage to keep the tension high without having a constant tete-a-tete with the hero and the villain, and “Panic in the Street” orchestrates this perfectly. Not only does it make the audience anxious for Blackie to be caught; it makes the audience anxious for a confrontation the hero needs to make a fulfilling climax.
Still tense today, more than 60 years after it was made, “Panic in the Streets” might be a forgotten treasure to some, and it’s worth rediscovering on Blu-ray… or just discovering for the first time.
The newly mastered Blu-ray features a commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. There’s also vintage television spotlights on Jack Palance and Richard Widmark along with the original theatrical trailer.