A sick man (and illegal immigrant to boot) beats the wrong guy at poker, a small-time gangster named Blackie (Jack Palance), who chases after the guy, kills him, and throws him off a nearby dock. The body is eventually recovered, and the coroner thinks there’s something not right about this dead body, calling in military doctor Richard Widmark, of the U.S. Public Health Service. Widmark confirms that the dead man was inflicted with pneumonic plague (although it was the gunshots that obviously killed him), a deadly airborne virus that could turn into an epidemic very, very quickly. Widmark says they have only about 48 hours to track down everyone who came into contact with the deceased, and advises everyone to keep it hush-hush, so as not to create widespread panic. Paul Douglas plays the generally annoyed New Orleans police captain tasked by the local mayor to find the dead man’s killers (but doing so in a manner that doesn’t alert Palance’s attention to the fact that they’re after him, causing him to run and possibly infect more people). However, Douglas is initially very resistant to…y’know, do anything much, especially when know-it-all Widmark hasn’t been very tactful in his treatment of him thus far. As for the killers, well they’re looking for the dead man’s brother, whom they believe have screwed them out of some kind of smuggled contraband, unaware that they may be carrying a deadly disease. Barbara Bel Geddes and Tommy Rettig are Widmark’s loving family back at home, and Zero Mostel (who, interestingly, was one of the people blacklisted during the anti-commie witch-hunts, whilst Kazan is still infamous for naming names) excels as a sweaty toady of Palance’s.
Long before Patrick Dempsey and a disease-ridden monkey accidentally gave a whole mess of people a deadly dose of the sniffles, director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “The Last Tycoon”) gave us this 1950 mixture of noir and race-against-the-clock deadly disease thriller. Scripted by Richard Murphy (“Broken Lance”, “Compulsion”) and Daniel Fuchs (“Criss Cross”, with Burt Lancaster), and based on an Oscar-nominated story by Edna and Edward Anhalt (who were responsible for the screenplay for the quite watchable “Not as a Stranger” with Robert Mitchum, whilst Edward also scripted “The Young Lions”), it’s not exactly what I’d call gritty, but it’s certainly a million miles away from being a silly melodrama. Despite having ‘Panic’ in its title, the film is mostly free of histrionics, and I admire that, even though my only problem with the film is that I feel it needed to be longer and flesh this whole thing out. It seems like something that should be a bit wider-scale. Forgive the pun, but the situation is a tad too ‘contained’. Other than that, though, I see no real problems here.
The Alfred Newman (“All About Eve”, “No Way Out”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Airport”) music score is immediately impressive, as is Jack Palance (billed as Walter Jack Palance in his film debut), who looks like Satan and has an impressively intense stare. You get the feeling his character is called Blackie because that’s the colour of his soul- if he even has one. Also unsettling is the sight of Richard Widmark in a cardigan playing happy families with Tommy Rettig from “Lassie”. Ward Cleaver has never seemed so scary and psychotic. In all seriousness, Widmark, the same year he played an unrepentant racist creep in “No Way Out” shows his versatility here playing a dedicated doctor and family man, the film’s hero, basically. He’s got a terrifically sturdy presence on screen that works well here, and one wonders if not for this role, would Widmark’s career have ended up as eclectic?
Also working well is the film’s noirish, B&W cinematography by Joe MacDonald (“Niagara”, “The Young Lions”, “Mirage”). The tone of the film is, in keeping with director Kazan’s unglamorous and matter-of-fact storytelling style, rather grounded in reality and contemporary for its time, but the visuals are by contrast, shadowy and ‘cinematic’ (if that doesn’t sound too weird a term to use), albeit with Kazan using real location shooting. Surprisingly, the mixture doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb or seem contradictory, it works. Besides, Jack Palance’s face was born for B&W, it had to be that way.
Zero Mostel also deserves special mention, his sweaty, rather cowardly crook character is excellently conveyed by Mostel in a pretty serious performance (His tragic turn in 1976’s “The Front”, however, still remains his best performance for me). The always solid Paul Douglas does quite well as an irritable cop who slowly comes around to Widmark’s side, and the underrated Barbara Bel Geddes is also solid as Widmark’s wife. She seems like a real wife, not just a stereotypically 50s Hollywood housewife character, if you know what I mean. It’s almost like her scenes with Widmark seemed somehow real, even though the actors weren’t married to each other in real-life. You didn’t often get that vibe from other films from the Golden Years of Hollywood, but Kazan was no ordinary Hollywood filmmaker (and not just because of his stage roots).
The story (not the actual screenplay, mind you) apparently won an Oscar, and although I’m not sure it deserved one, it’s certainly a pretty realistic film for the period, and the story is a part of that. Has the passage of time worn this film down a bit? Yes, of course. It is, however, still interesting to see a 1950 perspective on something like this, and that’s how I viewed the film. The interesting thing is that for a film from 1950, I came out of this movie feeling that I had seen a 50s version of a 70s movie. That sentence makes sense if you watch the film. It’s ahead of its time, perhaps just a smidge too ahead of its time. If the situation were a bit larger in scale and the film a bit longer, this might’ve been a classic. As is, it’s an interesting, well-shot, and well-acted film, but it feels like the situation gets handled a little too well right from the word go. Still, if you like your disease outbreak thrillers, here’s an interesting early example that you might enjoy, especially if you’re also a fan of film noir. A young Jack Palance really runs off with this one.