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"Anything I don't like's a smart-cracking dame."
on August 7, 2005
Love him or hate him (many in Hollywood still do, hate him, that is, based on his cooperating with the HUAC - House Un-American Activities Committee back in the early 50s), Elia Kazan knew how to make damn good films, including such features as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), which won eight Academy Awards, including one for best direction and one for best actor in leading role for Marlon Brando, Splendor in the Grass (1961), and this earlier effort titled Panic in the Streets (1950), which also won an Academy Award in the best writing motion picture story category for Edward and Edna Anhalt. Starring in the film is Richard Widmark, whom I last saw in the one of the unfunniest comedies I've ever seen in National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1983), so I really relished this opportunity to put that experience in the past as I knew Widmark capable of much better things having seen Pickup on South Street (1953), which I think is one of his best films (I have yet to see them all). Also appearing is Paul Douglas (It Happens Every Spring), Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo), Zero Mostel (The Producers), Guy Thomajan (The Pink Panther), and Jack `Believe it...or not!' Palance (The Professionals, Torture Garden) in what appears to be his first silver screen role, credited as Walter Jack Palance.
The story, which takes place in New Orleans, or New Awlins', if you prefer, begins as a seedy poker game breaks up early due to one of the players feeling all sick like...the others are annoyed, especially Blackie (Palance), as the man was winning, and they believe he's using the old `I'm leaving early because I'm sick, not because I'm winning' ploy to get out of giving them the chance to win back their money, so they follow him because the aforementioned Blackie is an especially poor loser and wants his dough back...to which they end up killing the man and dumping his corpse in the harbor...only thing is, the now deceased was truly sick, suffering a pulmonary form of the bubonic plague aka the black death (you know, that bug that spread across Europe and killed millions?), diagnosed by Lieutenant Commander Dr. Clinton Reed (Widmark) of the U.S. Public Health Service. He tries to impress upon the local authorities the importance of finding everyone who had contact with the relatively unknown man due to the extremely communicable nature of the pathogen, but police captain Tom Warren (Douglas), whose been assigned to work with Reed, has little faith in finding the killer as there are virtually no clues (the dead man has no ID as he recently arrived by steam shipper and entered the country illegally). Now Reed and Warren have 48 hours to crack the case, lest the disease take a foothold and spread across the country.
My favorite exchange in the film was between the characters of Reed and Warren, the two civil servants stuck with each other, Reed feeling Warren isn't taking things serious enough, while Warren thinks Reed is over-reacting.
Reed: You know, my mother always told me if you looked deep enough in anybody, you always find some good, but I don't know.
Warren: With apologies to your mother, that's the second mistake she made.
This is a really strong film, although I'm not sure if it did too well the time it was released. The most striking aspect about the movie, in my opinion, is the dark haired Palance who played the role of the lead antagonist Blackie. He's a truly scary individual, not only because of his lean, almost gaunt, towering physique, but also because quiet nature of his character, sort of a calm exterior barely containing seething cauldron of violence ready to spill over on anyone who goes against him (check out the scene where Blackie dumps the sickly Poldi, mattress and all, over the stairwell)...one really interesting thing, and something I think often tends to screw films up in less capable hands, is the inclusion of so many different facets of a story...the disease, the killer(s), the relationship between Reed and Warren, the relationship between Reed and his wife (played by Bel Geddes), the withholding of information from the public, risking the possibility of full blown outbreak vs. the fear of causing a panic that drives the killer, who may be infected, out of town, etc. Yes, there was a whole lot going on (perhaps too much), but it handled well, and with little or no confusion. One aspect that I really liked was the perception by Blackie that police were putting so much heat out there because he thought they thought the man had smuggled something valuable into the country, something he would be interested in...is it me, or did Zero Mostel play the role of flounder lap dog to Blackie just a little too well? I mean yeah, I wouldn't want to get on Blackie's bad side being the man's a gorilla that trusts no one, but Mostel seemed a little too comfortable in the role. All in all I enjoyed this film, and I thought it provided a somewhat different and unique spin on a well-established genre...plus I've always been a fan of Richard Widmark and would strongly recommend two of his other films from the same period in Night and the City (1950), directed by Jules Dassin, and the one I mentioned earlier Pickup on South Street (1953), directed by Samuel Fuller.
The picture on this DVD is presented in original full frame aspect ratio (1.33:1), and looks very sharp and clean. The audio is available in both Dolby Digital stereo and mono, and comes across very well. In terms of special features, there's a commentary track by authors and film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, along with a theatrical trailer and liner notes for the film. There are also trailer for other 20th Century Fox noir films like Call Northside 777 (1948), House of Bamboo (1955), Laura (1944), and The Street with No Name (1948).
If I learned anything from this film its not to play cards with Jack Palance...he doesn't like to lose...