Saturday, March 23, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.6: Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 91/A

Elia Kazan might not have liked Gentleman’s Agreement or Pinky, but he couldn’t deny that they gave him more clout. Sure, Kazan’s work on stage with A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman might have been more revealing of his talent, but his middlebrow Darryl Zanuck-produced film projects gave him the success he needed to later make the kind of films he wanted. Case in point: 1950’s Panic in the Streets. The film had a similar focus on social problems as Kazan’s past works, but it filtered them through a tight genre framework and let Kazan shoot fully on location for the first time in his career. It made all the difference: Panic in the Streets is a great film, and a precursor to Kazan’s greatest masterpieces of the 1950s.

When an unknown immigrant man is found dead on the docks of New Orleans, the police are right to attribute his death to the two bullet holes in his body, but Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) finds something strange in his tissue: pneumonic plague. Reed clashes with city officials, particularly police Captain Warren (Paul Douglas), and convinces them that they have to find everyone who had contact with the man and who murdered him. Furthermore, they must not inform the public, lest anyone panic and leave the state stricken with plague. Meanwhile, the man’s killers and former associates Blackie (Jack Palance in his film debut), Fitch (Zero Mostel), and Poldi (Tommy Cook) take note at the police’s interest in their old friend and believe that he might have hid something valuable with him from his home.

Kazan had always been sensitive about the fact that he came from a stage background and feared that his films would amount to little more than filmed plays. When he finally got a chance to shoot on location as he had always wanted, Kazan did his homework, studying the films of John Ford, Orson Welles, Alexander Dovzhenko, the Italian Neorealism movement, and the German Expressionists. More than any of his previous films, Panic in the Streets gave proof that Kazan could direct visually. From Dovzhenko, Kazan took lessons in using faces, not to mention his strength in image rather than dialogue. From German Expressionism, he learned how to use shadows as a way to create a sense of dread- a shot of Palance’s face lit up by a single tiny light bulb establishes his menace early on. From Italian Neorealism, he learned how to use real locations to their fullest advantage- New Orleans is dirty, lively, and dangerous, and Kazan captures that better than almost any other director before or since.

Kazan had shown strength at playing with depth of field and deep focus before, but he really goes for the gusto here, letting characters show up in the background to let the audience know something before the protagonists do (example: Zero Mostel showing up in the background behind Widmark and Douglas, oblivious that the solution to their problem is just within their grasp). Best of all are his use of long takes- when the immigrant man is killed, Kazan uses a perfectly choreographed long take that requires each actor to hit their marks precisely, particularly when a train roars through, separating Mostel and Cook from the man. A more subtle but equally impressive long take plays with spatial dynamics as Widmark comes home to wife Barbara Bel Geddes, who cannot come too close to him as he’s been dealing with plague-stricken men and women all day. It’s a loving relationship, but it’s one filled with frustration as his work keeps getting in the way, and it’s particularly difficult when he can’t embrace her after she announces that she’s pregnant

The best example of Kazan’s mastery, however, comes with the final chase scene after Palance and Mostel realize just why the police have been looking for their old pal. It starts with a shocking murder, where Palance and Mostel throw their ailing friend Cook over a balcony to keep him from the cops. The two have been bullying the sick man to get information about the immigrant man’s possible stash, but they’re also genuinely trying to help him, so the franticness  and frankness of the murder is particularly shocking. They then take off, running to the docks and making for a boat that will take them far away- and spread the plague throughout the country. It’s a brilliant move from screenwriter Richard Murphy (Kazan’s Boomerang! collaborator), who brings all the story strands together and heightens all of the stakes at once for every character- Widmark needs to keep the plague from spreading, Douglas needs to capture the murderers, and Palance and Mostel need to escape.

Kazan’s choreography of the chase sequence is impeccable. His use of long takes and wide shots is impressive considering that he manages to bring a simultaneous sense of openness and a claustrophobia. Palance and Mostel can run to their hearts’ content, but everyone is closing in on them, and they have to find increasingly cleverer ways to get away from them. One shot places the camera several yards in front of them as they run down the wharf, whip pans as they run past it, and pans back around after the cops close in on them and they have to break through a window back indoors. Another impressive sequence shows them crawling under the docks like rats (plague connection, of course) as they evade Widmark’s capture, with Kazan using long dolly shots as they try to find any place to hide. Two things that make the climax particularly impressive are A. the fact that almost all of the stunts were performed by the cast, which allows the athletic Palance to contrast with the hopelessly out of shape and clearly tired Mostel, and B. Kazan’s use of workaday types in the background. It might be the most important thing in the world to everyone involved, but the dock workers are still unaware of the danger, working in the background obliviously until Palance fires shots at Widmark. One of them even stops to greet Palance, asking him how he’s are doing just as things are falling completely apart. Palance is friendly, but as soon as the cops come around, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot the man. It’s that sense of spontaneity and unpredictability that makes Panic in the Streets such a vibrant film.

Panic in the Streets follows in Boomerang’s footsteps as a docu-noir, but it’s a much more focused and accomplished work. Part of it comes from a believability standpoint- the chase at the end, while certainly a movie moment, isn’t as patently ridiculous as the trial ending Boomerang!. Panic in the Streets also deserves credit for taking a virus/disease outbreak movie and rooting it in human behavior and realistic moments rather than big, ridiculous Hollywood developments (see: Outbreak). But it ultimately comes down to the film being a more passionate and engaged work. Kazan’s strength as an actors’ director shone through in his previous films, but Panic in the Streets allows him to bring out more intense outbursts of emotion throughout the film. He certainly gets a lot of mileage out of his supporting cast (the warm Bel Geddes, sardonic Douglas, messy Mostel), but the two central roles are particularly inspired.

Widmark had made his name as a noir icon years earlier in his Oscar-nominated performance as the villain in Kiss of Death, and Kazan exploits that to give his hero a dangerous edge to him. Widmark is the smartest man in the room, but he’s also volatile and emotional, and his early pleas to the New Orleans government are often frightening in their intensity. The film gives Widmark a chance to show his range as his character softens around his family, bonds with Douglas, and ultimately strives to do the right thing and same the day. But that edge is key to making him more than a cardboard hero.

Palance made a career playing creeps and villains (most notably in Shane), but Kazan gets some of the best work of his career as Blackie. What’s unnerving about Blackie is his calm during most of the film- he’ll plainly instruct Mostel or Cook to do something, and he’s often genuinely friendly. To some degree, he’s a parallel to Widmark, a leader trying to keep everyone calm while he goes about his (admittedly less noble) business. It doesn’t obscure his dangerousness, though, which comes out whenever he’s pushed too much. A late scene by an ailing Cook’s bedside is a particularly strong scene from Palance. The actor stands by Cook, tries to soothe him, and reassures him that everything is going to be OK. But when Blackie doesn’t get what he wants, he explodes, towering over Cook and choking him. It’s as if the animal side of Palance has taken over the human side. What’s most striking about Blackie is that he’s technically not the real villain of the piece- he’s a nasty character, without a doubt, but he’s an unwitting carrier of the plague, and he actually instructs his men to stay in town rather than run, doing exactly what Widmark needs to save the day.

It’s a great example of how Kazan could take a social problem film and make it his own. Kazan shows great concern for the people, even the criminals, as they’re stuck with a situation they can’t get out of. The police are technically doing their jobs by not telling the public about the disease, but they’re also dooming certain carriers of the disease to die, such as an immigrant woman who caught the plague when the afflicted man came into her restaurant. Kazan might have turned to the HUAC in a few years (blacklisting a few of his own collaborators, including Bel Geddes and Mostel), but he was a bleeding heart liberal in his actual political beliefs, and his fear that the innocents might fall because of the government’s need to keep things secret is palpable. When the righteous Douglas goes too far and illegally locks up a reporter who might break the story, Kazan doesn’t flat out state whether or not he made the right decision, but there’s a queasy, borderline fascistic side to the situation as average, decent people (cops, longshoremen, doctors) are caught up in an impossible situation.

That’s especially true of Widmark, who despite his government position lives in a middle class home and struggles to pay bills throughout the film. His sense of alienation even as he fights for his community is clear- he’s an outsider compared to the cops, the longshoremen, and the criminals, and the apparent hopelessness of the situation starts to weigh on him as Widmark’s performance grows less explosive and more internal and exhausted. He’s also sacrificing his relationships with his own family- intimacy with his wife, closeness with his young son- in order to keep the world safe. In the film’s final scene, a well-meaning but pompous neighbor lectures Widmark on the importance of spending time with his son, oblivious to the fact that Widmark has just saved the entire city. We all have to do our part, but we won’t necessarily be applauded for it, and while the final moments suggest that Widmark’s relationship with his wife will go on, he’s still going to have to struggle to pay the bills, just like the rest of us.

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