This essay was written in response to a screening of Panic in the Streets which took place in September 1999 at the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
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In the Waterfront
I could exercise the techniques I’d decided I lacked. I’d make a ‘silent’, a film that a deaf man could follow, make it with people, or with ‘my own’ actors, who looked like people (1).
Kazan’s statement about the ‘method’ of Panic In The Streets is revealing for both what it does and doesn’t say. It does give a sense of the film’s fluid style, its vivid use of locations, and a certain bodily and facial expressiveness to its central performances, but, at the same time, it says little of the film’s exciting use of sound, nor its intricately structured patterns and motifs (which revolve around, amongst other things, food, music, animals and domesticity). Kazan’s words suggest a filmmaker breaking free from the restraints of filmed theatre, away from Hollywood and the star system, and finding new possibilities in the specificity of cinema. One can sense a film-maker finding his true calling, perhaps, tentatively encountering the techniques, style and working procedures (particularly to do with space and location) of many of his following films. Yet, these assumptions may make the film sound only partially successful, a muted vision of the hyper-expressive characters, actors (Brando, Dean, Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh) and worlds that Kazan is noted for. Despite some misjudged sequences, Panic In The Streets is far from a wistful experiment, or a half-successful dry-run for a similarly located film like On The Waterfront (1954). Rather it represents, despite its connections to his prior and later films, a road seldom traveled; a dynamic looking and sounding genre film (though not always sure of which genre), more concerned with atmosphere than social importance.
Panic In The Streets emanates from that brief moment in Kazan’s career after he broke free from the theatrical and studio constraints of his early work and before he took up the more hyperbolic adaptations of Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, et. al., that occupied much of the rest of his film career. It also emerges from a time prior to Kazan’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an incident which has forever marred the critical reception of his career and undermined (and at times reinforced) the political and social pretensions of most of his subsequent work. Refreshingly, it proves to be of little use to read Panic In The Streets within a particular social and political rubric other than as a means to situate and to some degree motivate its investigation into the seedy working-class ethnic melting pot of New Orleans. In this sense the film owes more to the tradition of film noir, particularly with its compromised protagonist, seedy city-based social milieu, documentary-style techniques, deadline based narrative and potentially ‘apocalyptic’ scenario, than to the somewhat ‘leftist’ social drama Kazan was noted for in the late 40s. One can see the racial concerns of Pinky (1949) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), the immigrant milieu of A Tree Grown In Brooklyn (1945), distilled into a much less self-righteous mix. In many ways this is the pivotal Kazan film and yet it doesn’t represent a consistent direction of his work, only a turning point.
Panic In The Streets is essentially a relatively breezy film with a superficially serious subject matter. The plot device of the importation of plague into the United States, and the search for the murderer of the initial carrier of the disease, serves more of a metaphorical and narrative function than to provide a systematic procedural account of a very real problem. Though xenophobia is an intermittent subject of the film, Panic In The Streets is more concerned with a flavoursome representation of a particular locale, and the interplay of characters caught within social restraints. The film uses aspects of the dominant reputation and representation of New Orleans as a series of structuring motifs; food, music, racial and cultural hybridisation reappear as visual, aural and thematic elements throughout the film. These elements less define particular characters than point toward the significatory, almost corpulent, excess of New Orleans as a location. Thus, we get less of a sense of the geographic exactitude of an incessantly rambling New Orleans than its physical and metaphysical aspects, and the lived experiences which characterise the city. The city’s reputation for excess is signified by the repeated, but often quite subtle, deployment of these and other motifs. The film weaves in and out of bars, warehouses, domestic environments, and each is partially defined by its different or connected visual or aural representation of these varied motifs. Characters eat and music plays incessantly throughout the film. Kazan, like Welles in Touch Of Evil (1958), attempts to provide a sense of encounter with the noise and music of a city; broken-up, diffused, and oddly juxtaposed in order to give a sense of cacophony, vibrancy and rhythm. It is this exploration and encountering of sound, space and more specifically location which points toward Kazan’s future films; even to such an expressive and theatrical film as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which takes pains to explore and dynamise its limited environment.
Panic In The Streets is also remarkable for the range of its performances. Kazan’s above statement suggests a parade of striking body and facial expressions (something almost Eisenstein-like) or a stately array of silhouetted and expertly placed characters, á la 30s and 40s John Ford. We also might expect something close to the psychological exteriority and expressiveness of other Kazan films, but, despite the presence of such ‘method’ performers as Palance, Mostel and Widmark, the film manages to occupy a relatively naturalistic framework (and despite the fact that Palance could never look “like people” as Kazan suggests). This sense of naturalism is heightened by the domestic scenes between Barbara Bel Geddes and Widmark, which are able to express the tensions between the public and the private, and between characters, without resorting to emotional pyrotechnics (and without really questioning the bond between characters either).
It is this kind of subtlety, range of tones, and control of locations that make this an important (but with little sense of its importance) Kazan film. In hindsight, and while recognising our endlessly changing notions of realism, it is also possibly one of his most ‘naturalistic’ films (check out the faces, lighting, and sense of claustrophobia in some of the interior scenes). It is also, for those who don’t much care for Kazan’s work, probably his best film.