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 thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target where 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. The 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by respected dramatist Elia 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 business 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 city 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 here for the tax credits. There may not be much documentation of what the city itself looked like in the 1950s here, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people.
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 cops vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre. 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 most 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.
One noticeable auteurist touch Kazan brings to the table is an interest in this port city’s immigrant Greek population, which feels unique to him given that the director himself was born in Constantinople to Greek parents. Besides the expected police stations, race tracks, and shipping dock locations that naturally arise by setting a noir here, one of the few vintage local spots the film takes a documentarian interest in is a Greek-owned restaurant named Athena’s, presumably now long-gone. The rest of the local cast & crew are much less conspicuous, sporting neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here (or, at least they weren’t undetectable to this local’s ear). It’s nice to have a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect) and it’s a little funny how the plague victims’ dazed stumbling resembles the drunken zombie tourists of Bourbon Street, but most of Panic in the Streets’s local people-watching is just as subtly played as its minor deviations from the noir template. There’s 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. For my taste, there are far too few women with substantial roles to paly in that dynamic (especially for the genre that effectively invented the femme fatale), but for the most part I was riveted just picking faces out of the crowd anyway. Shotgun Cinema projecting the film large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House was a major help in that regard. As a shot-on-location noir and an Elia Kazan procedural drama, Panic in the Streets is a solid genre entry, but not much more. As an act of local-history people-watching, however, it carries a lot of clout as something exceptional and I was glad to have the opportunity to share that experience with a live, local community.