A night of gambling goes very wrong for an illegal immigrant when he bets against a notorious local known as Blackie (Jack Palance) and his gang of rough-and-tumble men. So wrong, in fact, that the group of gangsters decides he must die.
The next day, a corpse turns up in the water in the docks of New Orleans, absolutely riddled with bullet wounds. The police, led by Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), see this as just another John Doe case, unimportant and not of much concern. It appears to be a typical gangster killing.
But things heat up when a doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), discovers that the corpse carries a deadly and highly contagious illness – a strain of the pneumonic plague. A frantic effort led by Reed attempts to track down every person who had contact with the dead man, especially his killers, who would have moved the body and have probably picked up the illness.
The New Orleans Police Department becomes caught in a race against time. They have only 48 hours before the plague begins to spread, probably reaching epidemic proportions. Will the killers be found before time is up, or will the disease continue to spread, eventually spreading throughout the entire country?
Panic in the Streets is a mix of crime drama and medical thriller, directed by the extremely talented Elia Kazan.
The subject matter of this film is still relevant today, and probably even more so, with the fear of biological warfare running quite rampant. There’s an entire subculture of people who dedicate their lives to preparing for such disasters (and an entire reality show, Doomsday Preppers, dedicated to that subculture). Whether or not the disease in the film was specifically sent to America to cause an outbreak is unclear, but the fact that the disease may spread to epic proportions and the police force seems less than concerned with the case creates a lot of anxiety for the viewer, especially those who fear such outbreaks in our present.
Since the film begins with the man’s death and the viewer knows right off the bat who killed him, the audience is left with one less question to consider, putting all of the emphasis on the disease and whether or not it can be stopped.
As a result, anxiety is certainly rampant in this film. It’s fast-paced in terms of the anxiety that the scenario creates, filling the viewer with suspense and frustration. The fact that the police forces don’t seem to realize the severity of what’s at hand is quite baffling.
At the same time, the film is also slow-moving in terms of big plot points. This makes for a number of exciting moments, counteracted by showing Reed’s calm (even in the face of such danger!) home life. This sets up an interesting contrast that keeps the viewer hooked.
Though sometimes a bit slow-moving, there are no corny moments or lapses in believability, despite the somewhat outlandish nature of the film’s premise. A very strong cast and the masterful handiwork of Elia Kazan make this a very successful thriller that will stick with the viewer for a long while after watching. The score: 4/5