Elia Kazan’s ‘Panic in the Streets’ Resonates with Today’s Plague

Given our current crises, it’s a film ripe for analysis.
June 30, 2020
Photo courtesy of YIDDISHKAYT

In one of Elia Kazan’s lesser-known films, “Panic in the Streets” (1950), Cmdr. Clint Reed, a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service (Richard Widmark), diagnoses pneumonic plague in a corpse. With only 48 hours before the incurable disease spreads, he’s determined to track down anyone who may have been in contact with the unidentified dead man, a newly arrived foreigner, point of origin unknown. But Dr. Reed is up against resistance at every turn, most pointedly from Police Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas). In his effort to prevent mass hysteria, the doctor is hell-bent on shielding the public from any and all information.

Its overstated, period elements aside, “Panic” is fun to watch and, more to the point, it has special resonance today in its depiction of a rapidly spreading uncontrolled disease with no known cure. And the cast of characters couldn’t be more politically and culturally spot-on from the good, admittedly authoritarian, doctor to the not-so-good police captain to the ill-informed, suspicious businessman to the sleazy underworld to the heroic newspaperman; each character awash in public and/or private agendas. Given our current crises, it’s a film ripe for analysis.

On June 24, Yiddishkayt (a Los Angeles-based Yiddish cultural and educational organization), partnering with the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB),  presented a virtual conversation on the film. The four panelists were Rob Adler Peckerar, executive director of Yiddishkayt; Boris Dralyuk, LARB executive editor; author-film critic J. Hoberman; and Karen Zumhagen-Yekple, a professor of English and gender studies at Tulane University. In May, the film series debuted with the 1922 silent vampire film “Nosferatu,” directed by F.W. Murnau. “Nosferatu” also embodied such topical issues as aliens and contamination. 

During the hourlong, free-wheeling discussion about “Panic,” the four scholars covered a range of topics, including the film’s connection (and lack thereof) to Camus’ “The Plague”; Kazan’s body of work dealing with class, race and ethnicity (Think “Pinky” and “Gentleman’s Agreement”); its political vision; and its central metaphor: contagion and its origins.

It’s no fluke they all agreed that the disease in “Panic” can be traced to recently arrived foreigners on our shores, immigrants of some ilk who are closely allied to a criminal under class. It’s a viewpoint voiced by our current administration, but it has deep roots within our collective psyche. 

Dralyuk pointed out that the movie originally was titled “Port of Entry,” adding how the prescient Dr. Reed views the sickness as a global (not simply local) crisis that needs to be contained. It’s not unlike like immigrants themselves or communism or the rise of Nazism or whatever imagined or real contamination the country faces at any given time. The film has many metaphorical and symbolic echoes the pundits agreed.

Jack Palance (in his film debut) with Zero Mostel in a still from “Panic in the Streets.” Photo courtesy of YIDDISHKAYT

Elaborating on that theme, Zumhagen-Yekple talked about the literal and metaphorical significance of setting the story in New Orleans with its multi-ethnic-racial population, an iconic demimonde that included Jews and many Blacks. New Orleans was a hub of slave trading, she noted. That said, the lack of African Americans in the movie (short of background players) was jarring. The panelists noted that the villain of the piece was named “Blackie” (played by Jack Palance with his trademark angular, hard-edged appearance). “He’s like the plague itself,” Hoberman said. And equally troubling, two Chinese characters in the film evoked caricatures.

“Panic in the Streets” is fun to watch and, more to the point, it has special resonance today in its depiction of a rapidly spreading uncontrolled disease with no known cure.

Yet all observed the paradox. Kazan, the undisputed auteur, was keenly in tune with racial/social justice issues. So, too, were the Jewish writers on board: Edward Anhalt, who co-wrote the story with his wife, Edna; and, most notably, Daniel Fuchs, a Brooklyn-born proletarian writer, who adapted the story. The screenplay was penned by a non-Jew, Richard Murphy. Still, the film subtly embodied a Jewish sensibility, the panelists concurred.

Peckerar said that “Panic,” along with “Nosferatu” and future films in the series, should be of special interest to Jews because in various ways, the movies deal with concepts of communities colliding, the fusion of communities and how those communities evolve. What can have greater resonance for the peoples of a diaspora whose self-definition shifts with time and place?

The designated hero is Dr. Reed, yet all agreed he is an ambiguous figure at best. Through a 21st-century lens, (and it’s hard not to view him that way), he’s well-intentioned, but he’s also an authoritarian. His medical license and especially his badge give him control over others and the right to withhold information that impacts their health and, in fact, people die as a result of his decisions. Peckerar described him as “a cad that saved the day.”

The police captain, the embodiment of law enforcement, is the more clearly drawn heavy, although even he comes around thanks to his friendship with Dr. Reed.  Throughout, the two characters are in competition on every front including who makes more money and boasts greater social status. They are admittedly adversaries but in the face of a larger common enemy — the plague —  they forge a bond. 

Hoberman called the cop a Republican and the doctor a New Dealer, to which Dralyuk responded, “A Republican softened by a New Dealer.”

Dralyuk talked about the “cost of a career,” a topic Dr. Reed and his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) discuss, suggesting that without spelling it out, the screenplay hints at why communism might be an appealing to alternative to Dr. Reed.

Perhaps, the purest character here is the reporter who is unfairly jailed for trying to inform the public. But at the same time, Hoberman said the paper lives off advertising and prints stories that promote spurious cures. “Still, the film does not sensationalize or denigrate the press,” he said. “The press feels the public has the right to know and the authorities don’t.”

In the end, the panelists talked about the film’s genre. Hoberman suggested it had elements of film noir, but it lacked its essential pessimism. Indeed, it’s a whole lot closer to “Father Knows Best,” he said. Reed is the iconic American male of the era: successful in his career, a good provider and a fine family man. His relationship with his son is paramount and compared with all the other men in the film, who can’t measure up (not coincidentally they are single and childless), he is “idealized masculinity that upholds the patriarchy,” Peckerar said, adding that there is resolution and, more important, the Reeds are expecting a second child. To that degree, its vision is arguably optimistic.

More information on the Yiddishkayt series is available here

Simi Horwitz is a New York-based award-winning feature writer/film reviewer.

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