Panic in the Streets was filmed by Elia Kazan in 1950, and although it was a critical success, it was not a financial success. It was shot in New Orleans on mostly live locations, showing the vibrant life of the city, which is something Kazan was passionate about.
The opening shot was a long tracking shot. Kazan was very adamant about using these kinds of shots. The movie was completely shot on location in New Orleans, and was the first film that he was able to shoot completely on location. The story it was based on had been used by a number of scriptwriters, so “as this history suggests, there was nothing fancy about Panic in the Streets, as it was eventually called. It was, in essence, a genre film – a crime-chase movie in a nourish mood. But it suited Kazan’s pressing need for a location shoot.”1 The music he uses is authentic New Orleans jazz. Kazan was overtly fond of New Orleans. He considered it a very alive city at the time. The movie has an incredible energy. It also indicates somewhat of a prejudice against illegal immigrants - at one point a mention is made of rats sneaking out of ships and bringing in diseases, a thinly disguised reference to illegals, as it was suspected that it was an illegal immigrant, sneaking off a ship, who brought the plague that they are trying to deal with. Kazan would have viewed illegal immigrants askance, as he was very proud to be American and loved everything to do with America. The story does not dwell on this aspect extensively, however, as the real villains are the gangsters.
Panic in the Streets,” based on a story Edward Anhalt….had originally published in Dime Detective magazine,”2 was well received critically and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1951. Kazan also won an International award in 1950 at the Venice Film Festival, and the film was nominated for an award in 1951 by Writers Guild of America, USA. It had a budget of 1.4 million dollars, but it failed to recover its budget. The location shooting was blamed. Richard Widmark played the doctor, Clint Reed M.D; Paul Douglas played Captain Tom Warren, Barbara Be Geddes played the wife Nancy Reed; Tommy Rettig played Dr. Clint’s son Tommy, and Jack Palance played the criminal Blackie.3 Kazan was not happy with the detective, Paul Douglas, who was picked by the studio. He did not think much of his acting ability, but the studio pushed him to be in the film.
The plot is that a man sneaks into New Orleans and after a card game in which he is believed to have been cheating, he is murdered. When the body is brought into the morgue the police surgeon notices some disturbing details and deems it necessary to call in Dr. Clint, an army doctor who is employed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Clint identifies the man as a carrier of pneumonic plague, a highly contagious disease. There is a race against time before it could spread outside of the city. It takes them through the streets of New Orleans and the many intricate lives of the people who live there. However, not everyone is onboard with Dr. Clint, and the doctor often feels emasculated. This feeling is present not only at his work but also in his home, where his wife is constantly fussing about the low salary that he is paid by the U.S. Public Health Service, and she repeatedly brings up the same unpaid bill. As luck would have it, the criminal Blackie, played by Jack Palance whose strong facial bone structure emphasizes his strength, demands respect wherever he goes, and makes Dr. Clint feel even more emasculated. The movie has a wonderful excitement to it, and there are thrilling chase scenes that add to the excitement.
The historical context is American life in the early 1950’s. World War Two has been over for several years, and people just want to get back to living normal lives, working hard and raising a family. It was a time when life was still relatively safe, and certainly an army doctor who considered himself somewhat responsible for the moral fiber of society did not want an out-of-control plague upsetting the relative calm of domestic life. We notice this feeling of safety in that the little boy really has a life of his own. He gets money from his dad to go off to the movies with his friends on his bicycle, and no one is worried. He also has an older friend, Mr. Redfield, and again no one is worried about the boy spending time alone with another adult who lets him come over and play with his electric trains - an adult stranger who the boy had met on his own and who the dad did not even know before he was introduced to him while they were painting. It is a time of trust and of families being close to each other, as is evidenced by the following domestic scene with Dr. Clint’s little nuclear family. Historically this is also a time when international flights across the Atlantic were first becoming commonplace. People are just beginning to realize that although this is a wonderful development, it also raises the possibility of communicable diseases being spread across the world. In the movie Dr. Clint observes that the airplane “can carry communicable disease to every corner of the world in a matter of hours. This is probably the first movie to make that point, however briefly.”6
This is a movie that is clearly pushing against many conventional ways of filming. For one, it is a Hollywood movie, but it is not being filmed on a set. For another, there are a lot of non-professional actors used. However, it also shows a lot of old traditional things used in films that are probably not needed anymore. Why is a scene needed that shows a car pulling up into the coroner’s office? We could have just cut to the coroner’s office. Kazan’s filming techniques include a complete tracking shot in the morgue. This is at about 00:06:20. Kazan uses a real morgue and real morticians. In this film the camera is infinitely more fluid than in his films where he was forced to use sets. It moves more, in fact it really doesn’t stop moving, showing city life more realistically. Kazan worked diligently on developing this method.
In Kazan’s earlier films one could see that he was playing with perspective - in this film he is playing with perspective to a very high degree. This film adds a significantly greater number of layers. In the scene inside the morgue at 00:06:40 we can see a story going on in the background. There are three framings in the shot. Looking from right to left, the first framing is of a lady. The next is of a cop in another door, and then the front framing is of the coroner. In the first framing the lady identifies her husband’s body, and then leaves upset. This is all happening in the same shot as the coroner getting the examining table ready for the body that has been brought in from the murder on the docks. This is an extension of things he was trying in his earlier movies. Partly this is to establish that more than one thing is happening in a scene. Definitely one of the first things that Kazan wants to establish in this film is that this is a city that is alive, and that this is a real place that actually exists, and that are any number of stories going on.
There continues to be a lot of background action in the movie. In fact, it appears that these types of shots are definitely some of Kazan’s favorites. Often something starts in the background and then brings the characters into the main story in the foreground. Kazan comments on the opportunities that timing in film can create: “On a theatre stage, true time goes its normal course; it’s the same on stage as it is in the audience. But in a film we have movie time, a false time. Climaxes in life go clickety-click and they’re over. When a film director comes to a crucially important moment, he can stretch it, go from one close-up to another.”4
After the morgue scene, the camera work for the next scene is completely different. It moves to a pleasant bright day in suburbia America. Dr. Clint is the head of health at the army base. He shows that he is an intellectual by the clothes he wears - a college professor type sweater and dress pants. He is more of a trained intellectual than the city folks that we have just seen. In fact, part of the issue in the movie is that nobody really believes Dr. Clint because he is a big fancy doctor. He is an intellectual and almost no one buys into the whole scary scenario that he puts forth. Again in this scene there is a story going on in the background; there is character action. While Dr. Clint and his son Tommy are working causally on their painting in the foreground, in the background Redfield first appears with a suit and a hat on. He has a little casual conversation with Dr. Clint and Tommy and then continues to open the driver’s door of his car as they go back to their painting. He removes his suit and hat. He now looks like a completely different character – he has a bald spot and he has overalls on. Dr. Clint and Tommy do not even realize that he has made this transformation; they are too engrossed in their painting.
There is something about this scene that seems to have an importance to Kazan that is beyond the importance to the film. It lasts for quite a while, longer than is necessary to establish the role of Dr. Clint in the film. It seems when watching the movie for the first time that it is to also establish the son’s role in the film, but the son does not play that large a part in the movie. Could part of the purpose of this scene then be something more personal, could it be to show what Kazan wished that his father would have been like, and what his childhood could have been like? In the scene the sun is shining. Dr. Clint, the boy’s father, is dressed up in casual upper middle class attire – a well-tailored sweater and expensive trousers – while painting furniture. The gentle love Dr. Clint feels for his son is evident, and the son is completely relaxed and fulfilled being with him, knowing that there is only warmth and love in their relationship – violence and over-authoritarianism are not even within the realm of possibility. This is so different from the relationship that Kazan had with his father George throughout his childhood and even as an adult. Kazan’s father “was-and remained-a frightening figure to Kazan….It is worth observing that such characters, confident and bullying (until, generally, they got their comeuppance), became staples in all Kazan’s work. They are, symbolically, fascist tyrants ruling the little nations – fractious, rebellious, struggling for democratic emergence – that is the family in so many of his dramas.”5 Perhaps in this movie Kazan saw his chance to, for a short time, imagine what it would have been like to have a father who was gentle and loving and someone not to be afraid of.
Another filming method that Kazan uses in Panic in the Streets is ensemble staging, which “minimizes camera movement and cutting.”7 We saw this in the original morgue scene where there were actually three different things going on. Another instance of this is when Dr. Clint thinks that a restaurant owner and his wife may have come in contact with the plague carrier. “The two-minute scene plays out in just two shots, both with slight panning movements. The scene’s impact owes a lot to the performances: the line readings, facial expressions, and gestures, including the wonderful way that Richard Widmark rips off his surgical mask in angry frustration. But the scene also benefits from small but significant rearrangements of the actors in the frame.”8
It is this type of setting up the shots that could prove to be difficult on Hollywood sets. Kazan says himself that he never was comfortable in Hollywood, that he needed to get out in the real world; he needed action. Panic in the Streets was the film that let him experiment, and even though this film was not a financial success, he believed that if he had not made this film he could not have made On the Waterfront, which was a huge financial success. Kazan says about Panic in the Streets that “it was a liberation for me. I also think it’s the only perfect film I made, because it’s essentially a piece of mechanism, and it doesn’t deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly.”9
Aesthetically, I find the movie to be filmed incredibly well. It is clear that by this time in his directing career Kazan can do things the way he wants to. He has created a much more true-to-life movie than he had ever done previously, for instance the chase scene at the beginning of the film is incredibly realistic, but it took a lot of planning. The people are moving slowly when the train comes. This had to be timed perfectly so they would not be hit. This is a much more dramatic looking film than Gentleman’s Agreement, which was filmed only three years previous to this, and this shows that Kazan was experimenting and learning new filming techniques at a rapid pace. The thrilling work in Panic in the Streets influenced amazing movie after amazing movie by Kazan in the years to come.