Academy Award winning”Panic in the Streets” boasts good writing and good acting
Academy Award winning”Panic in the Streets” boasts good writing and good acting

Have you ever woken up in the morning and thought ‘I wish I could go and see a good movie about public health tonight?’ Well, guess what — this week you have not one, but two, movies to choose from that satisfy that very desire. One’s fiction, the other a documentary, and both are highly recommended.

Elia Kazan’s 1950 problem picture Panic in the Streets (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 6:30 pm on Sunday, October 21) was produced in an era when most Americans believed government was the solution, not the problem. The problem in this case is pneumonic plague, introduced into the United States via a stowaway on a rat-infested merchant ship. 

Shot on location in New Orleans, Panic in the Streets stars Richard Widmark as Dr. Clinton Reed, a naval officer employed by the U.S. Public Health Service to tackle infectious disease in The Big Easy. When a bullet-riddled body washes ashore one day, the police assume it’s the result of a routine gangland shooting – but coroner’s assistant Cleaver (director Kazan, in a surprisingly meaty role) isn’t so sure, and summons Reed to inspect the evidence.

Reed immediately determines that, though the victim clearly succumbed to his wounds, he’d also been infected with yersinia pestis. Ordering the corpse cremated and all those in contact with it inoculated, he realizes the killers are now probably incubating the deadly bacteria themselves. It’s a race against time as Reed and police investigator Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) try to track down the gunmen and prevent an epidemic from occurring.

Edna and Edward Anhalt’s tense screenplay won a well-deserved Academy Award, but there’s a lot more to Panic in the Streets than good writing. One of the best actors of his generation, Widmark is in top form here, and Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel are outstanding in supporting roles.

Joe MacDonald’s black and white cinematography conveys the seedy essence of post-war New Orleans, with Bourbon Street watering holes such as The Gunga Den and Prima’s 500 Club (the latter owned by Louis Prima’s brother Leon) providing a neon-lit contrast to the shadowy, sinister dockyards. Though used sparsely, Alfred Newman’s jazzy off-kilter score suits the film perfectly.

Critical consensus suggests the film’s plague is a metaphor for communism, and that’s not an unreasonable interpretation. (The theme of ‘red germs’ would be more fully — and bluntly — developed in 1951’s The Whip Hand, a truly bizarre RKO programmer.) Panic in the Streets, however, is as much tribute to the wise ministrations of the federal government as it is red scare polemic: ‘50s Americans could count on civil servants to protect them from existential threats of all varieties.

The Waiting Room: A day in the life of Highland Hospital

Moving, horrifying, life-affirming, and upsetting: “The Waiting Room” was directed by UC Berkeley grad Peter Nicks
Moving, horrifying, life-affirming, and upsetting: “The Waiting Room” was directed by UC Berkeley grad Peter Nicks

Perhaps it’s the local angle that makes me appreciate The Waiting Room so much, but this new documentary deserves widespread acclaim and exposure. Directed by Cal grad Peter Nicks, the film is a day in the life of the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the trauma center that also serves Berkeley. Moving, horrifying, life-affirming, and upsetting, it’s a reminder of the debt of gratitude we owe our underpaid, overworked county medical workers.

The film opens at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre this Friday, October 19 and is not currently scheduled to play in Berkeley. It’s well worth a trip across city limits.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...