Panic in the Streets (1950; dir. Elia Kazan)is more interesting for the ideas it presents than for its story. Set in New Orleans, it is about an illegal immigrant who carries a plague infection. He’s killed when he begs out of a card game. When the autopsy reveals his infection, the public health inspector, Clint Reed, played by Richard Widmark, urges the city police and other officials to conduct a city-wide search for the identity of the dead man and for people he may have been in contact with. The pneumonic plague is described as highly infectious and 99% fatal. An early version of such later films as Outbreak (1995, dir. Wolfgang Peterson) and Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh), Panic works clearly in the American film noir tradition. It’s a combination of police drama and disease drama.
Immigrants play an important part in the film. The film shows New Orleans as a place of diverse and multicultural populations, Asians, Italians, blacks, and so on. The atmosphere if the city is often evoked, and the opening scene specifically recalls the opening of Streetcar Named Desire, also a Kazan film. In bars, eateries, fishing wharves, warehouses, and elsewhere the film makes the atmosphere of New Orleans prominent. The film specifically links the disease itself with immigrants, and the infected man is suspected of being East European.
The film explores the origins of the infection—a vessel off the coast populated with crewmembers from various parts of the world. Rats infest the ship, and they are suspected as the cause of the disease. One crewmen has died, and another is infected when the officials manage to find the ship.
Reed as the health inspector understands how diseases spread, and he knows that if people exposed to the disease aren’t identified and inoculated (in this film, one simple shot protects you from the plague) it may spread to other cities and become a national and international epidemic. He spends much of the film trying to convince others, especially a police inspector who doesn’t like government officials, of the importance of dealing with the situation. Two tensions become evident here. One is the relatively minor tension between local and government officials concerning who is best able and willing to deal with crises. The other, a more significant one, concerns the idea that immigrants are a potential source of contagion, especially immigrants from less familiar parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America. New Orleans is not only a multicultural center of culture and people in this film, but also a threat to the rest of the nation as a result.
Reed’s family life runs as a sub-current through the film. It’s clear that he’s an ambitious man who wants success in his job and wants to be able to provide for his family. In the opening scene, we see him painting a cabinet with his young so. The boy talks admiringly about the man across the street who has taught him how to paint and has spent time with the boy. The implication is that Reed doesn’t spend enough time with his son, and at the end of the film the neighbor comes out and says as much. Reed’s wife is clearly also someone whom he needs to spend more time with.
Reed is aggressive and hot tempered because he’s worried about his own status in life, worried about failure. He’s not an Annapolis man, and this may factor into his thinking, his subtle sense of inferiority. His wife gently convinces him that he sometimes takes out his worries on other people, including her.
An interesting piece of sexual diplomacy circa 1950s style occurs in a scene late in the film when the wife reveals that she has “decided” to become pregnant with a second child. This is something she and Reed have discussed before but they have delayed because of money concerns. Now she has decided to “let” herself become pregnant. Her assumption is that Reed will be happy with the second child, and that somehow they will survive financially.
This film about the threat of plague in New Orleans recalls Jezebel (1938, dir. William Wyler), in which city fathers discuss and ultimately decide against taking precautions against yellow fever, which has ravaged the city in the past and which, in the closing hour of the film, visits the city again.