Film Logue

A Little Bit of Plague Makes the People Come Together

Panic in the Streets - (1950) Directed by Elia Kazan

Starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes

2 or 3 years back I read The Plague by Albert Camus and I've been meaning to read it again. There is something about Plague that fascinates me, any contagious disease in fact, if it groups a number of people together its everything short of uninteresting to observe human solidarity.

Panic in the Streets is a story that follows a thinning clock, a race against time, as the threat of an epidemic deepens in a New Orleans town when a man with pneumonic plague is murdered and his infected attackers unknown. Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas play the unlikely pair of doctor and policeman in charge of finding the contaminated murderers. The doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed M.D. just as Dr. Bernard Rieux in The Plague or even Dr. Steven Monks in Val Guest's 1963 plague film, 80,000 suspects; all dealt with the tremendous strain of stress, every life that pass, passed through their hands and every action they took was met with immediate response. Under such restraint of time during plague, one must act fast, truthfully, and with little or no regard for ego. I guess this is why plague stories interest me. Only when the threat of death is made a real solid fact, only when it looms about not as a spontaneous thief but as an invited guest who makes you uncomfortable nonetheless, only then do we shed the material layers of life. It brings out of people, that which they are at their essential make up. Heroes can become cowards, beggars can ascend to aristocracy; plague has no class division. During a plague, everyone is in the same position, death may come and carry anyone away. This is true even without plague, Death most certainly can never be called prejudice or predictable but without such an experience like plague, Death can be ignored, a person may distract their attention to other things. And as I would agree a preoccupied obsession with Death isn't healthy nor is the fear of Death that stunts one's experience of life. Plague sheds our costumes and what we are becomes known to us and others.

I'm surprised I haven't heard about Panic in the Streets before. Perhaps because its not based on a Tennessee Williams play and it doesn't star Brando, he isn't in it at all, actually. There are some great performances nonetheless, Richard Widmark is intense and practically blew a few capillaries as Clint Reed and then there's Jack Palance (then billed Walter Jack Palance) as Blackie, the lead assailant who's unknowingly carrier to the pneumonic lung candy that's got the city officials all hot and bothered. Barbara Bel Geddes plays Clinton Reed's wife, Nancy. It took me a moment to realize she played Midge Wood, Jimmy Stewart's friend in Vertigo, I'm very fond of her. I wonder if she was part of Kazan's method class? I'd like to see more of her.

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