Monday, March 3, 2008

Panic in the Streets (1950)

"Panic in the Streets" (Elia Kazan, 1950) Kazan's gritty "N'Orleans noir" with pneumonic plague substituting for the rot in men's souls. Richard Widmark steps away from playing giggling gangsters to take on a too-earnest-by-half Naval doctor who is alerted to a murder victim's communicable disease and must find the killers and anyone they've come in contact with before the people of New Orleans start falling in the streets. He's given grudging help by the police commisioner (Paul Douglas, great in a non-comedic role), but it's the targets of the man-hunt that are the real interest. One of the perpetrators is played by Zero Mostel, looking a hundred pounds lighter but with the same crazy comb-over and the quicksilver reactions that threaten to spill into comedy. As his boss Blackie is one Walter Jack Palance--yup, him, in one of his first movies--very young, very tall and with a face of so many concave facets that Kazan's naturalistic lighting schemes pay off in wierdly evocative ways. There's an extended chase through a coffee warehouse where the stunts, some of them a bit risky, are performed by Palance...and Mostel! Seeing the slightly svelter Zero leap from a ceiling transom to a stack of coffee bags is pretty scary to consider. Filmed on location with a lot of "real" folks playing "real folks" (and a lot of them are really good!), this kinetic movie keeps wanting to drop into hysteria at any moment--a Kazan trademark--but, that lends credence to the whole impending disaster.

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