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 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

“The Strange Woman” (1946) starring Hedy Lamarr

Bored with being a film star, Hedy became an accomplished amateur scientist, designing in the early 1940’s the basics of spread spectrum and frequency hopping for radio waves – a concept embodied in every wi-fi and cell phone in use today.

…I feel like the writers read Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind in the same sitting and said “let’s combine the two”. FYI “Strange” was the term used for “adulteress women” back in the day.

I really see this movie as about a woman who learns that she can “pretend” her way into being a better person. She may seem sociopathic or narcissistic to some, but she is desperate to survive and thrive in a world where she has no education, no money, and only her looks and charm in a rough land.

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon

I came across this film from a Facebook group; it is in the public domain (as are most films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). It has a mix of historical melodrama, film noir, and feminism. In 1824 in the port city of Bangor, Maine, Jenny Hagar grows up w/o the love and guidance of her mother (who left her and her drunken/violent father). As a girl, she tries to drown her friend, Ephraim, but then saves him (while other kids look on in wonder). A wealthy local man, Judge Saladine, stops his carriage upon seeing this commotion. His young daughter, Meg, asks if Jenny can go to boarding school w/ her; the judge considers it for a moment, then says Jenny can come work/live in his household. Jenny’s father, Tim (Dennis Hoey), admits that he’s not equipped to raise a child properly. However, Jenny turns down the offer. She demonstrates both her anger at the inequity of her circumstances and her determination to rise by her bootstraps. Jenny tells her father not to worry, b/c “I’ll grow up to be beautiful!” Douglas Sirk (uncredited) directed the opening sequence.

Men like me… and it’s men that have the money in this world! -Jenny declares to her father

After her father hears of Jenny (Hedy Lamarr) walking out w/ a young sailor, he beats her so roughly that she runs to the richest man in town. The owner of several businesses, Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), sent Ephraim (his son) away to college to keep him away from Jenny. After Jenny is cleaned up by his housekeeper, Mr. Poster marries Jenny that same night! He discussed the matter of her safety w/ Judge Saladine (Alan Napier) and the town pastor, Rev. Thatcher (Moroni Olson). Napier would later become famous as Alfred the Butler, in the 1960s series- Batman.

It wasn’t by knowing how to set a table that Cleopatra got along. -Jenny comments to her friend Meg

Jenny pledges a generous amount to the church, earning the respect of her neighbors. She starts doing charity work in the community, visiting those in need w/ food and kind words. Jenny remembers where she came from and she means to do something about those she left behind. When Epraim (Louis Hayward) returns home, he’s still deeply in love w/ Jenny, and she encourages his attentions. Mr. Poster is eager to have his son gone. After her husband falls ill, Jenny nurses him herself. Mr. Poster recovers and other town leaders come to him for help w/ a violent riot. Jenny is so concerned for her older friend, Lena (June Storey), that she takes her in after her tavern is burned down. Unlike Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, Jenny doesn’t care for propriety; she despises it, recognizing that its standards are applied far more strictly to women than men. Some of Mr. Poster’s lumbermen are called in from the hills to serve as a police force. Jenny becomes infatuated w/ one of the men; he is Meg’s (Hillary Brooke) fiance, John Evered (George Sanders).

There are similarities between Jenny Hager and Scarlett O’Hara, but Jenny’s intentions and the root of her flaws are much darker and more mysterious.

So often in films, femme fatales are portrayed to have no conscience, no sense of compassion for others, and yet Jenny does.

…Ulmer has crafted a moody and daring picture that strikes devilish notes without banging the drum too loudly. Striking scenes and imagery are many…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Water” (2005) starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, & John Abraham

[1] The film is lovely in the way Satyajit Ray’s films are lovely and the best elements of Water involve the young girl and the experiences seen through her eyes. – Rogert Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times)

[2] Not a dry eye in the house by the time the film ends! Unforgettable and grand in my view; a fabulous achievement for all involved!

[3] The beauty of this movie is the incredible acting. The performances are so touching and so eloquent that you are drawn into the story and the feelings of the women.

-Comments from viewers on Amazon

[1] Despite the bleak conditions portrayed in the movie, there are moments of wonder and comedy and great love. 

[2] The script articulates the tragedy and hypocrisy these women must bare, but it also illustrates the quiet revolution we must all experience in order to grow, in order to change. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Water (shot in both Hindi and English) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The Vancouver Film Critics Circle named Deepa Mehta (an immigrant from India) the Best Canadian Director of 2006. Many viewers have praised the look of the film. The natural beauty of the setting is captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, a Brit who won an Oscar for his work on Hell or High Water; he worked with w/ Mehta on her other trilogy films: Fire and Earth. The music (which adds to the story) was composed by A.R. Rahman; the lyrics were written by Sukhwinder Singh.

I would prefer to be known as a storyteller. I don’t set out to provoke reactions. I don’t even feel vindicated, but the irony does not escape me. It is like my father used to say: the two things you could never predict were the day of your death and the success of a movie. -Deepa Mehta (on Water‘s success)

Filming began on Water in 2000 with Akshay Kumar and two actresses who worked w/ Mehta before- Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. This film was stalled due to protests in India; sets were vandalized (in organized attacks from Hindu nationalists) and Mehta’s life and those of the actors was threatened. Production was restarted in 2004 in Sri Lanka w/ model-turned-actor John Abraham (before he hit it big in Bollywood), Seema Biswas (an indie/theater actress), and Canadian actress Lisa Ray (who was in Bollywood/Hollywood– also directed by Mehta). Ray studied to improve her Hindi, as it is not her first language; her mother is Anglo-Canadian and her father is an Indian immigrant to Canada.

The unknown girl who plays Chuyia (Sarala Karlyawasam) didn’t speak Hindi; she is Sri Lankan and never acted before this film! She does a great job, as everything comes across as natural and believable. Chuyia (only 9 y.o.) is a catalyst for change and the viewer’s entry into this ashram of widows; she doesn’t know what to expect either. There is a hierarchy among the women who live humble lives of poverty. Chuyia finds a mother-figure in the spiritual Shakuntala (Biswas); she tries to help the child adjust to this bleak life. Chuyia forms a friendship w/ the beautiful young widow, Kalyani (Ray). By chance, Kalyani meets a handsome young man, Narayan (Abraham), who is another change-agent. Chuiyia upsets the order of things w/ her spirited personality; Narayan brings in revolutionary ideas from Gandhi (incl. that widows should be allowed to remarry).

“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, the effects of one’s relationship w/ parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?

“Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Mickey Rourke, & Ted Danson

Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir (and first film- wow!) is inspired by classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Kathleen Turner (in her debut role at age 28- wow!) played a woman so alluring/confident that we can believe her lover could be convinced to do anything for her. Kasdan wanted a woman editor, Carol Littleton, to have a female perspective on the erotic scenes; she would go on to work on 9 films w/ him. Unlike many of the films of the ’80s, Body Heat has a balanced take on revealing skin. I saw this film maybe three times; on this most recent viewing, I noticed how well the editing turned out!

Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers and friends, but rarely as protagonists. Turner’s entrance in “Body Heat” announces that she is the film’s center of power.

One of the brilliant touches of Kasdan’s screenplay is the way he makes Ned Racine think he is the initiator of Matty Walker’s plans.

-Roger Ebert

It is a very hot/humid night in a small town in South Florida. A small-time lawyer, Ned Racine (Hurt- then only 30 y.o.), is strolling on a pier where a band is playing. We can see straight down the center aisle to the bandstand. Suddenly, a woman in white stands up, turns around and walks directly toward him- Matty Walker (Turner). She is slim, tall, w/ hair down to her shoulders. The white dress w/ long sleeves she wears might remind some viewers of how of the actresses in ’50s films (such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, or Lana Turner) dressed.

The characters here are constantly hot and sweaty. The film was shot in freezing cold temperatures. The actors sucked ice cubes before speaking to eliminate foggy breath and had water sprayed on their skin and shirts to simulate body sweat. Christopher Reeve was offered the lead, but turned it down by saying: “I didn’t think I would be convincing as a seedy lawyer.” Kim Zimmer (who plays Mary Ann) had originally been offered the role of Matty, but the producers of The Doctors (a soap opera) wouldn’t give her time off to shoot the film. This movie- slated to be shot in the NYC/New Jersey area- was moved to Florida because of a Teamsters strike.

[1] …I felt the music really pushed the movie over the top. The hauntingly melancholic string work serves not only as ambiance, but also acts as narrative. The sweet yet cautionary score mirrors the plot theme of ‘moth to the flame’- obvious danger yet unavoidably seductive beauty. 

[2] William Hurt is very assured in one of his early roles as an incompetent small time lawyer who’s also an inveterate womaniser. He’s driven by lust and greed and his gullibility makes him easy fodder for the manipulative Matty.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

The film opens with an inn burning (w/ shades of yellow, orange, and red) in the distance; Ned leans against a window and lazily comments to his hookup: “Somebody’s torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients.” There is use of the color red, incl. on the pier (when a snow-cone stains Matty’s blouse, in the lighting of the Pinehaven bar, and the infamous scene where Matty brings Ned home to listen to her (creepy IMO) wind chimes. She is wearing a white blouse and a bright red skirt (“revealing that though she acts cool, she is red-hot below the waist,” as Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards discussed on their podcast- Out of the Past).

Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that. -Ned advises Matty (when she mentions re: local men hitting on her) / This is a blouse and skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about. -Matty retorts quickly / You shouldn’t wear that body. -Ned comments

The above dialogue is inspired by noir of the past, but it works in this ’80s movie (as Ebert noted). If you take away the smoking (or fiddling w/ cigarettes) and a few lines related to the role of women, this film has aged pretty well. Matty even gives Ned a fedora- a direct homage to classic Hollywood. Kasdan surrounds the lead characters w/ good supporting roles; he creates world of police stations, diners, law offices and restaurants. An adorable/young Mickey Rourke, playing an arsonist/former client of Ned’s, steals the show in his scenes. Matty’s husband (Richard Crenna), who she calls “small, mean, and weak,” is nothing of the sort; he obviously knows how to make money and is no pushover. Ted Danson (wearing thick glasses) is an A.D.A. and Ned’s friend, who eventually suspects him of murder, as does their police detective friend. The dancing Danson does was choreographed based on the dance moves of Fred Astaire. The following year, Danson got the lead role on the iconic sitcom- Cheers.

Hurt does a fine job in this anti-hero role; he is a sleazy guy (hooking up w/ various women w/o any emotion, having an arrogant/superior attitude, and taking on shady clients). However, he is far from a one-note villain; he is troubled by his conscience. The film delved into content that would’ve been censored earlier, incl. the explicit love scenes and also the femme fatale getting away w/ her crimes in the end. Ned goes to jail, b/c he never was as smart as Matty; she was always a few steps ahead. Pay attention to the scene in Ned’s office when he and Matty resolve to kill her husband. They speak softly (and calmly) re: murder.

That man is gonna die for no reason but . . . we want him to. -Ned flatly tells Matty

What do you think of their relationship? In the last act, Matty says: “Ned, whatever you think- I really do love you.” Does she? Does he love her? Matty got what she always wanted- “to be rich and live in an exotic place.” The ending, showing her relaxing w/ a drink on a sunny beach under blue skies, is ambiguous. She reacts to an (offscreen) man, but sounds indifferent to him. What is she thinking about under those sunglasses? Matty is a mystery at the end!

In 2003, director Mahesh Bhatt made a Bollywood reimaging- Jism (“body”)- starring two former models-turned-actors (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu). Kabir Lal (Abraham) is a young, alcoholic lawyer who sees an attractive woman hanging out on a beach (Pondicherry) and is intrigued by her. He sees her again in a local restaurant (where she is wearing a backless black dress) and offers to buy her a drink. This is Sonia (Basu) and she’s married to an older/wealthy man (Gulshan Grover) who neglects her. The lead actors looked self-conscious together, though they were (at that time) a real-life couple. I recall thinking that Abraham had a few good scenes w/ the character actors who played his friends (Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey). Siddharth (Pathak- an experienced indie/theater actor) plays a policeman who goes from from wanting to beat the hell out of Kabir to wanting to protect him. Unlike in Body Heat, Kabir gets very emotional (and shows it); there is not much nuanced about his character. Basu (as expected) is tan, toned, and wears an excess of eyeliner; she was put in vampy roles in Bollywood in her time. Women w/ darker skintones are (often) put in negative roles in this genre; it’s a well-known/troubling fact. Though the production design (as well as many scenes) are a direct copy of Body Heat, the ending is very different!