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Spotlight on: Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets

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Cover of Panic in the Streets DVD Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets

This is one of those films that looks great when you read the cast list, but that suffers in the execution. It is the terrific acting that carries the viewer through Panic in the Streets' non-plot (actually an Academy Award–winning screen story from the husband and wife team of Edna and Edward Anhalt).

Richard Widmark stars as a military doctor who discovers that a recently murdered man had pneumonic plague and would have died in a couple of days anyway. Since it is communicable through the air, he wants to find and quarantine the killer in order to avoid an epidemic.

At the same time, he is trying to keep the story from the press -- one tenacious reporter, in particular -- because people will leave town, those already infected spreading the plague over the country (and possibly throughout the world). The meat of Panic in the Streets involves Widmark searching for the killer with local police chief Paul Douglas.

The killer is Blackie, played by Jack Palance (or Walter Jack Palance here) in his film debut. When Blackie gets wind of the investigation of the murdered man, he assumes that he had been hiding something and goes after the man's cousin, with flunky Fitch (Zero Mostel) in tow. (Their relationship reminds me of the Warner Brothers duo of Cockney cartoon dogs Spike and ChesterSpike and Chester (right) -- or Abbott and Costello without the humor.)

(About Zero Mostel: Director Kazan would later name Mostel to the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Mostel was one of many who were blacklisted and didn't work in entertainment for most of the 1950s. He would eventually revive his career and appear in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Producers, and The Front, a film about the Blacklist).

Sprung from a potentially fascinating story, Panic in the Streets is, unfortunately, overlong and contains little suspense about the eventual outcome. On the plus side, Widmark has a terrific talent for palying a regular guy and his antagonistic relationship with Douglas is the heart of the picture (despite Kazan's attempts to do that with Widmark's scenes at home with wife Barbara Bel Geddes).

Also, Palance shows why he made a career of playing creeps (and then making fun of that persona in his Academy Award–winning performance in City Slickers): the man has an awesome presence. Mostel, on the other hand, seems to be only going through the motions, giving Fitch none of the depth that he would endow Max Bialystock with almost twenty years later in The Producers.

An extra subplot or two might have fleshed out Panic in the Streets closer to perfection but, as it is, it is simply a passably tense film of a universal fear. However, I do hope that this DVD release introduces Richard Widmark to modern audiences. Popular in radio and film (he's likely best known for his darker turn in his debut, Kiss of Death), Widmark has an instantly recognizable voice and a naturalness that makes any performance of his worth watching.

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