A Movie A Day: PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) Now look, Neff, it isn’t smallpox and it isn’t cholera. It’s plague.
Published at: Dec. 1, 2008, 3:26 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we follow director Elia Kazan from yesterday’s AMAD Gentleman’s Agreement and what a radical jump. Both films are incredible, but so drastically different…
I must admit this film threw me for a loop. I didn’t know a thing about it before I watched it other than the cast I could read on the cover and that it was an Elia Kazan film in the Fox Noir series.
I was shocked to see Jack Palance show up (under the name Walter Jack Palance) and boy was a fugly guy. He definitely grew into his body, but damn his statuesque face wasn’t made to be young. He’s a bad dude, a feared thug, who is playing poker with a bunch of guys in the beginning of the film, including a nervous, sweaty cousin of one of his gang who just snuck into America, stowing away on a boat.
Zero Mostel (THE PRODUCERS) is also in on the game, a toadie for Palance with the most horrible comb-over to grace the screen until Bill Murray showed up in KINGPIN.
The sweaty dude claims to be sick and wants to leave. Palance doesn’t want him to go… he’s up nearly $200 and it’s not polite to leave the game early when you’re up. He doesn’t buy the dude’s story that he’s sick. Not one bit.
The poor bastard runs and is chased down by the gang. When he’s cornered, he pulls a knife and Palance shoots him dead.
Yeah, it’s a noir, alright, I was thinking.
Turns out the dude wasn’t lying. He was sick. If he hadn’t been plugged he would have died within hours anyway, of the pneumonic plague, the uglier brother to the bubonic plague, which is much more contagious.
The movie then turns into a manhunt as a government health expert (Richard Widmark) and a police captain (Paul Douglas) have no more than 2 days before the murderers of this man become contagious themselves and start an outbreak.
What an awesome idea for a movie and a great, inventive twist on the typical crime story.
Watching the film I drew a lot of parallels between Kazan and Spielberg, especially early Spielberg. One of the things that makes JAWS my favorite film is how much business is in every moment of the film. There’s a reality to people talking over each other, constant interruptions, extremely real bit players (in JAWS’ case it was populated with Martha’s Vineyard locals) that was a huge part to Spielberg’s magic.
PANIC IN THE STREETS is very similar with that, very natural performances and natural conversations, but it’s also got a very similar structure to JAWS as well. Richard Widmark is kind of a Brody/Hooper hybrid. He’s a nice guy, a family man, who has to work hard at convincing the higher ups (mayor, police chief, etc) that there’s a pending epidemic. So, he’s got that Brody drive and he’s also an expert in his field and that’s the Hooper part.
Paul Douglas is kind of a mix between Mayor Vaughn and Quint. He’s kind of a tough badass cop, but he doubts Widmark more than anyone and resents this Government man giving him orders.
I guess that means Jack Palance is the shark, the main carrier of the plague, unknowingly hours away from killing tens of thousands of people.
But if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Especially during the Richard Widmark family scenes, his bonding with his kid and his natural conversations with his worried wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) feel very much like the suburbia that Spielberg captured.
So, the main thrust of the movie is the race against time as Widmark and Douglas hunt down the murderers and that’s a great story, but it’s the details that really pushed this movie over for me. Little character moments, like Widmark’s kid begging for a quarter to see a movie, the difficulty our heroes have in getting any information because of people afraid they’re going to get in trouble and the most amazing moment… I won’t ruin it for you, but watch what Jack Palance does when he’s caught transporting his sick friend made me applaud while laughing hysterically and rocking back and forth on my couch. It’s an amazing moment.
This film won the Oscar for best writing and it’s another one that deserves it. Writers Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG) and Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS) really knocked this one out of the park and had a perfect storm of creative partners with Elia Kazan’s naturalistic direction and sense of casting, Alfred Newman’s score and Joseph MacDonald’s (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE) gorgeous black and white cinematography.
And it was a tough year to be competing for Oscars. HARVEY, ALL ABOUT EVE, SUNSET BLVD, FATHER OF THE BRIDE, ASPHALT JUNGLE, MYSTERY STREET and THE THIRD MAN were all competing that year.
Final Thoughts: A top shelf movie that really knocked me back a bit. It’s been a great run these last few movies and I expect it to keep up a while. PANIC IN THE STREETS is an amazingly unique movie, especially for its time, and a precursor to the type of filmmaking that would launch Steven Spielberg’s star some 25 years later. Everybody is in top form here, especially the uber-creepy young Jack Palance… who has a random midget paperboy tipster friend in the movie… if that wasn’t enough, you also have a brilliant movie surrounding such awesomeness. Highly recommended.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Sunday, November 30th: THE HOT ROCK (1972)
Monday, December 1st: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
Tuesday, December 2nd: THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973)
Wednesday, December 3rd: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
Thursday, December 4th: THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
Friday, December 5th: POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961)
Saturday, December 6th: MIKEY & NICKY (1976)
Alright, as promised, I am diving directly into THE HOT ROCK and will post my thoughts on that before I sleep, thus catching me back up to current on my list. See you in a few hours for that one.