Panic In The Streets, 1950. 9/10

Great film noir. Jack Palance is incredibly creepy as the hood Blackie. His antagonist, Richard Widmark, as the Navy doctor, is a stoic contrast. The supporting cast fills in well, with Barbara Bel Geddes as the doctor’s wife, and Paul Douglas as his police counterpart. The action shoots along nicely in the claustrophobic and irredeemably sordid New Orleans. What’s really unusual in Panic In The Streets is the dual theme: a crime drama and an quasi-horror story of an epidemic.

The two themes are convincingly joined. Recalling the vampire from Nosferatu, Blackie moves rodent-like in the frantic chase scene after tossing the infected Poldi off the stairs in an iconic act of criminal evil. The doctor has been busy trying to convince city officials of the plague’s danger; much like the scientist-type confronting the similarly skeptical authorities in horror/sci-fi films when there’s a monster or alien on the loose. Noir is after all about monsters of the human variety. Others have noted the logical disconnect in that what is obviously a potential national problem that’s nonetheless kept local. That problem, too, is common in many low-budget sci-fi movies of the era. At least the doctor does point out the big picture.

The chase scene is itself a sort of concentrated hell of desperation. Somewhat amusingly, the stereotypical fruit cart becomes an active part of the chase, as the screen-side truck Blackie hijacks spews bananas in its wake. Like all good chases, the escape route gets chancier, narrower, and more precarious as it winds up. The weird thing is, Blackie would be better off being caught. He does have a few murders to answer for; but at least he won’t die of the plague if he gives up. It’s good that we’re spared a lot of clinical talk and guys looking at germs through microscopes. The plague theme, though superficially authentic, clearly also has a larger metaphorical context. Whether it’s Cold War fear or a more elemental fear of the unknown isn’t necessarily important. It’s the effects of fear (like the effects of space aliens, monsters, or mutants) on the community.

The happy ending works because it restores the domestic cheeriness that was inaccessible once the doctor embarked on his hazardous underworld journey. There’s only a point to fighting criminals and plagues if there’s something to survive for. Panic In The Streets has a palpable sense of immersion that’s thrilling yet nightmarish. Essential for noir fans. 9/10.

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