Thursday, October 1, 2009

Panic in the Streets (1950)

In 1950 New Orleans, Richard Widmark is a Navy Officer working for the National Department of Health. He is called in on his day off to attend an unusual autopsy. A gunshot victim shows signs of the virulent pneumonic plague. He enlists the mayor and the police to find the murderers before they infect the city or flee and infect the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the murderers (Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) are tracking down the victim's cousin, believing that he's holding onto something extremely valuable.

The intercutting of the killers' quest and Widmark's need to scour the underworld for them are the qualities that seem to qualify this film as film noir. But the protagonist does not fit into one of the noir roles: as a criminal, a cynical anti-hero, or a hero made to act like a criminal. He is a hero, complicated only by his strident attitude, a self-realization he makes halfway through the picture. And his token undercover work literally involves him covering up his uniform in a long overcoat to better blend in.

Jack Palance is truly evil in his screen debut and carries the qualities of cruelty and ambivalence alone on his shoulders. But there is nothing oneiric, erotic, or strange about the film. Too, there is very little that one would call noir style in the picture. A lot of the film was shot on location in New Orleans, and there is much in the way of realistic night-time photography, but expressionistic shadow and mise-en-scene give way to that reality. There is one particular shot of Palance waking toward the camera in silhouette that was nice, but it was early in the picture and not representative of the rest of the film.

Judgment: Not Noir.

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