Film Noir re: Pandemics: "Panic in the Streets" & "The Killer Who Stalked New York"

Panic in the Streets (1950) starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance & Zero Mostel

This is a lesser-known movie from director Elia Kazan; it was made before his masterpieces: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. In New Orleans, an illegal immigrant feels sick and leaves a poker game while defeating the small time criminal Blackie (a young Jack Palance). He is chased by Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel- best known for Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway) and Poldi (Guy Thomajan), then shot by Blackie. His body is dumped in the sea and recovered the next morning by some beat cops.

A police surgeon notices something unusual when he cuts into the body. Lt. Cmdr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), a family man and doctor w/ the U.S. Public Health Service, is called in to examine the body. He diagnoses a highly contagious disease- pneumonic plague- and declares that everyone who may have had contact w/ the dead man be found ASAP. The mayor supports his efforts, though some other civic leaders are doubtful. Reed estimates there are 48 hours before the disease begins to spread. He joins a gruff policeman- Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas)- to find the killers.

In the scene where Palance hits Widmark on the head w/ a gun, the actors rehearsed it with a rubber gun, but when the cameras rolled, Palance substituted a real gun. Widmark, who wasn’t expecting it, was out for 20 mins! Widmark commeted: “Why did he switch? Who knows?” In an interview, Widmark recalled how Palance got into the mood of his character by beating on Zero Mostel (off-screen). Mostel had to go to the hospital after his first week on the movie!

…a simple story, but it is still effective and with a great villain. The engaging plot has not become dated… Jack Palance performs a despicable scum in his debut, and the camera work while he tries to escape with Zero Mostel is still very impressive.

You can feel, see and smell the New Orleans of 1950, thanks to Kazan, his cast and script.

The great thing about this movie is the Oscar winning script. The dialog in this movie is also absolutely magnificent and gives the movie a feel of reality and credibility.

Kazan’s work offers a contrast between the confusion, sickness and immorality of the streets with the modest, calm home life of the Reeds. Despite all the danger, ultimately he returns back to the bosom of his family justified and satisfied. The implication being that social balance has been restored, at least for the moment by his professionalism and curative skills.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Killer Who Stalked New York (1950) starring Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, William Bishop, & Dorothy Malone

Columbia Pictures paid director/producer Allen H. Miner $40,000 for the rights to this story (based on a smallpox outbreak in NYC in 1947). Millions of New Yorkers were vaccinated against the disease. Robert Osborne (TCM) said that Columbia had to sit on the movie for about 6 months in order to let the similarly-plotted Panic in the Streets to leave the theaters. Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) returns to NYC from Cuba carrying $40,000 worth of smuggled diamonds – and smallpox, which could start a devastating epidemic. A treasury agent loses her, but keeps on the trail, while Public Health doctor Dr. Ben Wood searches for the unknown person spreading the deadly disease. Sheila is concerned only with her husband Matt, who plans to run off w/ the diamonds… and maybe also Shelia’s younger sister!

Keyes (a prolific actress best known as Scarlett’s younger sister- Suellen- in Gone with the Wind) thought that studio head (Harry Cohn) cast her in this (un-glamorous) role as payback for rejecting his advances. She sued Cohn and the studio, settled out of court, and was released from her contract. Keyes’ hair was bleached blond and she had on unflattering makeup (making her look older than her 34 yrs.)

With the country presently in the mist of a viral outbreak that has the entire state under quarantine and the country on full alert, The Killer that Stalked New York is as pertinent today as it was when it was released in 1950.

What we have then is a gritty, somewhat newsreel sounding (and looking) film whose narrator walks us through all the ironies of modern urban epidemiology.

The anthrax attacks of 2001, the fears of weaponized smallpox being used by terrorists, the concerns about vaccinations and the amount and safety of vaccines, the inability of governmental agencies to work together and share information effectively all come to mind when one watches this film.

The biggest problem is the direction, which is also all over the place. With a story like this you’d expect some sort of tension or suspense but none never happens. Keyes is pretty good in her role but the screenplay really doesn’t do her any justice as our feelings for her character are never really made clear.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

2 thoughts on “Film Noir re: Pandemics: "Panic in the Streets" & "The Killer Who Stalked New York"

  1. Awww, I know what you mean! I just kept hearing about these last wk (so decided to watch). I’m gonna do more reviews (b/c stuck at home- DUH) that are NOT related to these issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. LOL, this is very virtuous of you but I am really in the mood for stuff that doesn’t underline all my anxieties at the moment!

    Like

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