Every actor needs to start somewhere. In the case of the late great Jack Palance, he started out doing what he will always be remembered for: playing the part of a very bad man. When offered the part of the heavy in the 1950 film noir, Panic in the Streets, stage actor Walter Jack Palance (as he was known by then) flew to New Orleans for his very first film role. And while the rest of his career may be simply summed up with the ever-annoying line “And the rest is history,” Elia Kazan’s memorable Panic in the Streets is certainly worth noting for due to much more than introducing the filmgoing world to the man who would both frighten and entice grown-up and adults alike for generations to come.
Filmed entirely on location and rarely employing the technique of ADR (read: real-time sound, complete with echoing throughout the non-sets — which gives it that extra certain je ne sais quoi), Panic in the Streets borders on being living nightmare. The opening credits (accompanied by the introduction of an excellent Alfred Newman score) take us down a historic (if fleeting) glance at the Bourbon Street of the time, before introducing us to our fourth-billed baddie as the host of a private poker game on the outskirts of the city; an evening of gambling that ends abruptly when a player — who is in the country illegally — claims he is very ill and vamooses. Indeed he is ill, but Blackie (Palance, who not only performed most of his own stunts, but even pistol-whipped the film’s star with an actual gun!) soon determines his guest had been cheating — and demands his men get his money back.
It is here that we get an outstanding example of Joseph MacDonald’s superb cinematography as Blackie’s henchmen — played by a then-unknown Zero Mostel and a still-unknown Guy Thomajan — stalk their prey through the dimly-lighted night. We learn later, the now-dead-card-cheat was sick — and his illness is soon discovered by U.S. Public Health Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) to be a case of the pneumonic plague! Convincing the mayor to heed his warning, Reed begins to work with the stubborn, disbelieving Police Captain Warren (Paul Douglas) to uncover who the disease-carrying illegal immigrant was, how he got into the country, and who killed him. But it’s not an easy task, as Reed and Warren butt heads from the get-go, and nobody really wants to take the good doctor seriously.
Barbara Bel Geddes co-stars as Widmark’s very ’50s housewife (be sure to pay close attention for the outrageously sexist finale!), Tommy Cook plays the younger brother of one of Palance’s men, and Dan Riss is a suspicious newspaperman determined to discover what the sudden manhunt is all about. Most of the rest of the cast (who are all uncredited) were played by New Orleans locals, and director Kazan plays one of the morgue workers who first examine the contagious corpse. The husband and wife team of Edna and Edward Anhalt wrote the original story for this film noir classic — which sadly bombed at the box office (which Fox head Darryl Zanuck attributed to the costly procedure of shooting on location).
Released on DVD in 2005 as part of the Fox Film Noir series (which also didn’t make much of an impact on the world), Panic in the Streets is now available on Blu-ray via the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics line. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer only makes Joseph MacDonald’s impressive cinematography stand out even further — as the black-and-white thriller is a very clean and highly-detailed stunner (especially for a film that is 63-years-old). A DTS-HD English Mono soundtrack brings the film’s dialogue and music to life in a more-than-adequate manner, and subtitles are available in English (SDH), French, and Spanish. Special features include an audio commentary with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursine (which has been ported over from the 2005 DVD), a theatrical trailer, and two (what look like) Biography episodes from the late ’90s/early 2000s focusing on stars Palance and Widmark.