So it turns out that swine flu is bullshit. No big surprise there. We have a tendency to assume the worst (and then kill all our pigs). But you know what wasn’t bullshit? What actually requires a little panic? Pneumonic plague. Transmitted easily from person to person, that stuff is scary. But if it’s so serious and contagious, why doesn’t anyone take Lieutenant Commander Clinton ‘Clint’ Reed, M.D. seriously when he announces that the dead Armenian no one seems to care much about is a carrier of this deadly disease?
Panic in the Streets would more accurately be called One Guy Panics in the Streets While Everyone Else Takes it Easy. Pretty much the opposite of what would – and does – happen these days if someone so much as whispers “pandemic.” Lt. Reed practically screams it at everyone he meets, and no one even bothers to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough, much less cancel their trips to Cancun.
While pretty much ignoring the open threat of plague in the U.S. is pretty unbelievable and annoying, Panic in the Streets was otherwise a very entertaining and unconventional film noir. The dark streets and wallowing in the gutter is consistent to the style, but the long, playful conversations between Lt. Reed and his wife seems delightfully out of place. This is definitely an Elia Kazan film, full of melodramatic and sweaty acting. In the best way. He always pays so much attention to human details. The careful curl of the wife’s hair seems completely deliberate. While another director might take this story and make a straight-forward thriller, Kazan turns to the intricate relations between power structures. Man and wife in the fifties. Chief detective and Lieutenant. Politicians and criminals. Crime boss and Armenian gamblers. Each line of dialogue is used to further these relationships and not just the fairly weak plot.
I see Kazan pulling the same trick in films like A Face in the Crowd and Gentleman’s Agreement. Two films whose plots are a little less than compelling these days, but they still hold up. These melodramas may have been really exciting when they were released. A musician bio-pic like A Face in the Crowd has been done a million times, but watching Sheriff Andy Griffith scream and yell and beat up on women is great in a totally different way than it would be back then. Now, with a sense of irony, A Face in the Crowd holds up because of its humanity. The slight tics of character that Kazan chooses to focus on really make the movie. Likewise, Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that seems completely racist these days is somehow still worth watching because these human qualities feel so sincere. In melodrama that’s rare.