“Panic in the Streets” is directed by the supremely talented, endlessly controversial Elia Kazan, one of the most accomplished American directors of the 1950s.
Kazan’s interest in the cinema dates back to 1937, when he directed “The People of the Cumberland,” a documentary short about Tennessee miners. After a feature-length docu about food rationing, “It’s Up to You” (1941), made for the US Department of Agriculture, Kazan began directing features films in 1945.
Though his early pictures were solid and well received by critics and the public, they were too deeply rooted in Kazan’s theatrical background and showed limited use of cinema’s unique properties as a visual medium.
His debut film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), a sensitive adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, boasted fine performances, including Oscar-winning turns by James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner. Kazan won the Directing Oscar for “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), which was considered at the time a bold indictment of anti-Semitism. However, viewed from today’s perspective, it’s too naïve and simple. “Gentleman’s Agreement” also won the Best Picture Oscar and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm.
“Pinky” (1949), a racial drama about a light-skinned black girl (Jeanne Crain) passing for white, was marked by excellent performances but seems static and tame in retrospect.
“Boomerang” (1947), an obstruction of justice political thriller energized, was energized by a semi-documentary style that indicated Kazan’s growing knowledge of the film medium.
In 1950, Kazan directed “Panic in the Streets,” a taut thriller with a poignant social message that goes beyond the feature’s plague‑scare plot.
Splendidly shot on location in around New Orleans by the lenser Joe MacDonald, the film, based on the Oscar-winning story by husband and wife team, Edna and Edward Anhalt, revolves around a public health officer (well played by Richard Widmark), who tries to track down two fugitives (Jack Palance, billed as Walter Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel, just before he was blacklisted) that might be carrying a deadly virus.
The excellent ensemble also includes Paul Douglas (“A Letter to Three Wives”) as the police captain, and Barbara Bel Geddes as the health official’s wife.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Best Motion Picture Story: Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt
Oscar Awards: 1
Motion Picture Story
The other nominees in this category were William Bowers and Andre de Toth for “The Gunfighter,” Giuseppe De Santis and Carlo Lizzani for “Bitter Rice,” Sy Gomberg for “When Willie Comes Marching Home,” and Leonard Spiegelglass for “Mystery Street.”
Kazan, who had directed Brando in the successful 1947 Broadway production of “A Streetcar named Desire,” flaunted again Brando’s brooding, explosive talent in the 1951 screen version of that play as well as in two other films, the mediocre “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and the superlative “On the Waterfront” (1954).
Powerful and electrifying, “Streetcar” was interesting for many things, including the different acting styles used by Brando as Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Zapata showed greater skills in building atmosphere and using physical locations. Kazan thought of Zapata as his first true discovery of the medium.
“On the Waterfront,” is one of Kazan’s best films, a powerful, grim drama of corruption on the docks of New York, which integrated the realism of the location photography with the naturalism of the acting to achieve an intensely moving picture. Brando won the Oscar Award for his role as Terry Malloy; Eva Marie Saint the Supporting actress Oscar for her tender portrayal of Edie Doyle; and Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb were all nominated for their excellent performances. On the Waterfront won the Best Picture Oscar and Kazan was named Best Director.
Some critics saw in “On the Waterfront” an attempt by Kazan to defend the testimony he had given two years earlier to the House Un‑American Activities Committee, in which he admitted former membership in the Communist party and named names, reversing a previous “unfriendly” stand. The director himself acknowledged similarities between his ambivalence and Terry Malloy’s conflicting loyalties.
“East of Eden” (1955), considered by many (not me) Kazan’s best film, stunned moviegoers with the acting talent of James Dean, who was nominated for an Oscar Award; Jo Van Fleet won the Supporting actress Oscar. Kazan handled complex characters and plot with meticulous attention, showing masterful control over his first color and widescreen production.