A Return to Panic in the Streets (1950) in the Time of COVID-19

Last Spring, Shotgun Cinema projected the 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House, as part of that season’s Science on Screen series. As a shot-on-location noir set in New Orleans and an Elia Kazan-directed procedural drama, Panic in the Streets proved to be a solid genre entry, but not much more. As a historical act of local people-watching, however, it carried a lot of clout as something exceptional, and I was glad to have shared that experience with a live, local community. There was a warm, electric feeling in that room as the movie offered a time-machine vision of our city’s past in an entertaining genre film package.

Once the movie concluded, however, the crowd gradually disbanded before the screening was officially over. The Science on Screen series included a post-film lecture and Q&A with specialists on each particular movie’s topic, and as that night’s guest scientist began their spiel the once-enraptured crowd gradually trailed off into the night one at a time, out of apparent collective disinterest. In retrospect, we all should have stayed & listened to that lecture. Hell, we all should have been taking notes. Panic in the Streets is specifically about a plague spreading through the streets of New Orleans, where current new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high, and the lecture was about how epidemics of that nature tend to spread through communities like ours. We had all gathered that night to marvel at a vision of our city’s distant past, but we were also unknowingly looking into our not-too-distant future.

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s & 90s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target were especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The prospect of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the New Orleans locale in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors (that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years) and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique.

The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film down here for the tax credits. It may not do much to document what the city itself looked like in the 1950s, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people. The local cast & crew sported neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here and it was nice to hear a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect). Even without that local connotation, though, there’s just a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing at the movies.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero lawmen vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre, but the film ultimately still adheres to those tropes. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat.

There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but those confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about Jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

At the time of last year’s screening, I thought of Panic in the Streets as a curio that would only be of interest to locals, but I’ve seen a huge increase in outside audience’s interest surrounding it in recent weeks. Of course, most of the film’s draw all these months later has nothing to do with its ability to satisfy noir genre beats nor its value as vintage New Orleans tourism. In the time of COVID-19, many audiences are scrambling to uncover older film titles that explore the horrors & social mechanics of large-scale health epidemics. If the goal of these coronavirus-inspired excursions into plague cinema past is to cathartically indulge in the scariest possible fallout scenarios of our current global health crisis, you’re probably better off watching a modern thriller like Contagion or Outbreak instead. If anything, Panic in the Streets’s depiction of a citywide viral contamination is almost reassuringly quaint compared to our current circumstances. Containing the epidemic is just as simple as catching a few low-level criminals who’ve been passing it around among themselves, which is antithetical to how we understand the seemingly uncontainable, exponential spread of contamination that’s playing out in charts & graphs on the news this very minute.

Speaking even as someone in New Orleans (where new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high thanks to massive Mardi Gras gatherings’ ominous presence in the not-too-distant rearview) who recently watched it in a crowded room, this movie is a comforting vision of an easily conquerable epidemic. I very much wish our current real-world crisis could be boiled down to just a few no-good scoundrels who need to be cornered at the Mississippi River docks. There’s a comfort to that simplicity. Instead, we’re in a much more complex mess of irresponsible disinformation campaigns, economic exploitation, and the deaths of our communities’ most vulnerable comrades – one where there cannot be a clear, decisive victory over the enemy when this is all “over.” A few dozen movie nerds remaining in their seats for the full lecture after that Shotgun Cinema screening wouldn’t have been enough to prevent these current helltimes, but it couldn’t have hurt for us to enter them better informed.

-Brandon Ledet

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