Jack Palance makes a big impression in his film debut about a New Orleans street thug exposed to a deadly strain of plague in Elia Kazan’s lean, gritty story of an obsessively determined health official (Richard Widmark) who only has two days to head off an epidemic.
An obviously feverish man named Kolchak (Lewis Charles) staggers out of an illicit poker game, owing money to a local tough guy named Blackie (Palance). Blackie, his lacky Fitch (Zero Mostel) and Kolchak’s cousin, Poldi (Tommy Cook) chase Kolchak and Blackie guns him down.
When the police find the body the next morning, the coroner notices something odd about the remains and calls in Dr. Clinton Reed (Widmark) of the U.S. Public Health Service from his day off. Reed determines that Kolchak was infected with pneumonic plague, a strain of bubonic plague that can spread by air. He alerts the mayor and the job of locating him is given to a skeptical police captain named Warren (Paul Douglas), who believes that Reed is an alarmist more concerned with getting his name in the papers.
At Reed’s urging, however, the police cast a wide net looking for anyone who knew Kolchak, which convinces Blackie that Kolchak had something valuable. He’s equally determined to find out what it is and to avoid the police, further complicating Reed and Warren’s search.
Palance’s performance is intense but fortunately lacks the flamboyant malevolence that marked his later career. Mostel’s Fitch is unusually restrained and serious, given his later body of work. Widmark overplays Reed somewhat, but makes the obsessive doctor someone worth rooting for. Barbara Bel Geddes as his supportive wife doesn’t have a lot to do, but she’s just as charming as you would expect Bel Geddes to be.
Kazan not only uses New Orleans as an effective backdrop, but he also employs many of his citizens, many from the less fortunate areas of town, as extras and minor characters. This gives Panic in the Streets an extra layer of authenticity. While a minor film for all involved, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out if you get the chance. Fox has released a great-looking DVD of the film as part of its Film Noir series.
This film is notable for reasons other than being Palance’s first movie. Both Bel Geddes and Mostel were consigned soon after to the infamous Hollywood blacklist of suspected Communist sympathizers. Of course, Elia Kazan was himself, later ostracized from Hollywood for “naming names” (including Zero Mostel’s) in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. This also gives the movie an unsavory sort of curiosity value. I may have little sympathy for those who call themselves socialists or communists, but what happened to people like Barbara Bel Geddes and Zero Mostel, who were almost certainly neither of those, was a gross injustice. So, however, was the later hatred piled on Kazan. He did what he believed was right, being disillusioned by Stalinist atrocities and the Communist Party’s interference with his early work.
All parties are gone now, and their work remains, so all that is left is to enjoy that and learn from our mistakes.