When I dive deep into the muddy waters of noir, as I do almost every November nowadays, it is with two main aims. First of all, I love to discover the little gems that I'd never heard of before (which is a lot easier to do with the many noirs that were churned out cheaply enough back in their heyday). Second, I like to catch up on the titles I know by reputation, but have somehow not yet seen. Panic In The Streets was one of the latter titles. Part of me thinks that I may well have seen it many years ago, before I had the advantage of various internet sites and apps to help me keep track, but my memory was coming up with nothing when I read the title and synopsis, so I figured it would be worth my time. And it certainly was.
The plot is quite simple. A man is killed by some criminal types, but officials are put on red alert when it is discovered that the man had a terminal case of pneumonic plague. The important thing is to find anyone who has been infected by the man, and that's what Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed M. D. (Richard Widmark) and Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) set out to do. Unfortunately, that's not an easy task when they are dealing with a network of criminals used to avoiding the authorities whenever possible.
Directed by Elia Kazan, with the final screenplay credit given to Richard Murphy, from the numerous people listed (and unlisted), Panic In The Streets is a nice little race-against-time thriller with a decent smattering of main characters helping to distract from the unbalanced tone. Why is it unbalanced? Well, others may disagree, but it feels a bit too cosy to me, plays things a bit too safe when it could have simply continued to ratchet up the tension all the way to almost unbearable levels. I understand that the film was released in different times, yet it still feels a bit lighter than it needed to be. One or two more victims would have helped, although that may have possibly affected the plot too much, with more bodies meaning all hope of containing the outbreak lost.
Widmark and Douglas work well together, one being a smart man becoming increasingly desperate and tired, the other being someone non-plussed by the situation until it starts to become more and more tangible around him, at which point he fully steps up to do whatever needs done. And Barbara Bel Geddes does well to make a good impression in the rather thankless role of Nancy Reed aka the good little lady waiting to look after her husband when he comes home from his tough job. But film fans will have more fun with the crooks here. One minor criminal is played by Zero Mostel, more famous for his lighter roles, and the main villain of the piece is played by Jack Palance, billed here as Walter Jack Palance. Palance is as tough and intimidating as he would be in many other roles, and does well at showing the vicious nature of his character as he is put on the defensive while feeling the law closing in around him.
The polar opposites of Widmark and Palance make this work, with Douglas and Mostel both proving themselves superb supporting cast members, and this remains an enjoyable and strange little thriller, classed as a film noir (although that is more down to the central idea and characters being focused on than any other main noir tropes you can think of). It's not an unmissable classic, but I'm certainly not disappointed that I prioritised it as a viewing this week.
There's a disc here.
Americans can buy this copy.