Combustible Celluloid
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With: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, Dan Riss, Tommy Cook
Written by: Richard Murphy, Daniel Fuchs, based on a story by Edna Anhalt, Edward Anhalt
Directed by: Elia Kazan
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/15/1950

Panic in the Streets (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

State of Plague

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Elia Kazan had already established his Oscar-friendly formula of social commentary, winning Best Picture for Gentleman's Agreement, when he doubled back and made this intense film noir; it, too, uses social commentary but it's so expertly folded into the story, and so gripping, that it succeeds as both art and entertainment. Richard Widmark stars in Panic in the Streets as Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed, who works for the U.S. Public Health Service. We first meet him at home on a rare day off, attempting to teach his son how to paint (the son knows better than the dad does), and then briefly conversing about an overdue bill with his wife, Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes). The phone rings, and something is up. It looks like it could be a case of pneumonic plague, which could quickly be spread across New Orleans, and possibly the rest of the country. Reed and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) must find the carrier at all costs. Jack Palance makes his film debut as a scary thug, Blackie, with sniveling Zero Mostel as his number one toadie. The script includes some realistic arguments about whether or not to believe Reed about what's going on, a fear-versus-logic argument that carries over today to things like the climate crisis. But mostly Kazan captures a shockingly realistic cityscape, using all kinds of concrete nooks and crannies, made all the more threatening with the fact that the characters are working without sleep. Though the movie was a box office disappointment, the story, by married couple Edna and Edward Anhalt, won an Oscar (it was the only nomination the film received).

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