Wednesday, June 23, 2010

PANIC IN THE STREETS - (Elia Kazan, 1950)

After going to see the new version of A Nightmare On Elm St last night, I was in need of something tasty to fill the gaping hole inside me, and this was just the ticket. Oh, for the days when popular entertainments were shot with panache and villains wore pants high as the eye could see…

The basic plot is, a shady stowaway foreigner crawls out of a ship in New Orleans with a bad case of pneumonic (first cousin of bubonic) plague, but before he can keel over and die he gets into an argument over a card game with a fabulous trio of hoods (one jittery stubble scratching dago, one sweaty fat man with a white suit and handkerchief for dabbing, and one scar faced eight foot psycho) and gets himself prematurely deaded. The next morning Public Health Service man Dr Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) examines the body and realizes that if they don’t find and inoculate the killers asap it’s hello Black Death all over again.
From there it’s a frantic mix of race against time detective action, hard-boiled film noir style underworld milieu and disaster time political confrontation as Widmark and the skeptical police captain (Paul Douglas) scour the city trying to track down the rapidly double-crossing hoods and convince the mayor not to leak the story to the press and risk the infection fleeing town with the killers.
It’s good and tough and everybody plays their parts beautifully (New Orleans included), but Jack Palance completely steals the show as Blackie, the menacing, gargantuan killer who is kind to Irish Midgets and a sucker for a pretty dame in a mink shawl.
Palance was a pro boxer until Hitler invaded Poland and his WWII bomber crashed and burned, leaving him with a reconstructed face that was perfect for playing creepy Hollywood villains. By the time he was an old man he’d kind of grown into the face, but in Panic In The Streets, his first film, he looks like a corpse that’s just too tough to actually die, in a suit so sharp and pants so high they boggle the imagination. Unfortunately he has jacket buttoned up in the only clip i could find, but just trust me and see the movie, it’s great and those pants are the high pants equivalent of Wayne Cochran's hair...

PS You can find Palance in Robert Mitchum's biography from last week, flipping tables over at angry Mexican general’s as bullets fly around the bar…

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