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Now on DVD: “Panic in the Streets” (Elia Kazan, 1950)

“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,” says Camus.
“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,” says Camus. The format is that of an outbreak-thriller, yet Elia Kazan stages it as an exuberant stylistic experiment, an affectionate comedy, a chance to research the waterfront. Long takes and wide angles lay the groundwork, the nimble sketching of a humid New Orleans night: A game of poker played on the second floor of a blues bar, Jack Palance’s taut profile posed against a bald light bulb, a faraway view of a freight train barely missing the febrile clod stumbling around the tracks. The threat of a contaminated murder victim touching off an epidemic of pneumonic plague is acknowledged amid the naturalistic joshing of morgue workers, the ensuing manhunt occasions an uneasy alliance between science (Richard Widmark’s sanitary doctor) and law (Paul Douglas’ chief of police). (The media—Dan Riss’ avid newshound—sniff around the margins, waiting for a scoop.) Ditching the studio-bound gentility of his earlier pictures, Kazan hones in on vivid homeliness: A crowd of longshoremen clamoring in barracks, the peeling paint on tenement walls, the rusty bowels of a cargo ship. Above all, there’s the riotous team of a grimacing slab of rock (Palance) and a henpecked bowl of jelly (Zero Mostel), sweaty hoods searching for contraband that turns out to be Old World disease. “Think of that when you’re talking about communities,” Widmark thunders at the provincial officials. The veiled call against foreign infiltrators is dented by Kazan’s fond view of the high-energy chaffing among contrasting ethnic groups, occupations, accents, body shapes and sizes. The final chase in and out of a wharf warehouse reverses the “close-ups treated like long shots” the cryptic young JLG wrote about, though the most visceral moment takes place in the eye of the storm: Widmark and his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) talk about food, bills, and an impending pregnancy, and the exhausted doctor, who’s been administering inoculations to palookas all day long, suddenly flinches from the woman’s touch.

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