Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Killer that stalked New Orleans

There's another movie back in the Fox Movie Channel lineup that had gone missing for a few years: Panic In the Streets which is airing at 1:30 PM ET on Sunday, January 17.

The movie opens with a card game involving a bunch of crooks somewhere in New Orleans. Something goes wrong, with the result being that two of the guys start chasing a third one, eventually killing him. That in and of itself would be no big deal. Until, that is, the coroner performs an autopsy. Yes, the guy died of bullet wounds -- but it looks as though he was carrying pneumonic plague! Enter Richard Widmark, playing Public Health Service doctor Clint Reed. It's his job to deal with contagious diseases, and he's got a dilemma here. Nobody knows who the dead guy is, which means he was obviously smuggled into New Orleans aboard one of the many ships coming from foreign lands. And, despite the fact that pneumonic plague is highly contagious, and the dead guy could have spread it all over town, the authorities really can't warn the regular people: if there were a public announcement, the other criminals involved in the killing, who would be the likeliest carriers of the disease, would be sure to leave town immediately, carrying the disease across the country.

So, it's a job for the police, in the form of Capt. Warren (Paul Douglas) to find out who this guy was and who he came in contact with. Warren and the good doctor have to work together, despite the fact that in typical Hollywood fashion, each has a healthy distrust for the other. The result is a pretty darn good suspense movie. We know a bit about who the killers are, as the authorities' investigation is punctuated by scenes of the bad guys, getting at each others' throats while at the same time unwittingly spreading the plague.

As for the cast, it's pretty darn good. Widmark is fine as always, and Douglas winds up becoming as sympathetic as he is in a lot of his films, such as the fellow policeman he played in Fourteen Hours. When it comes to the criminals, who better to have as a leader than menacing Jack Palance, making his big screen debut. (Jack was his middle name; in fact, Palance gets screen credit here as "Walter Jack Palance".) Assisting Palance is the sweaty Zero Mostel; sweaty in part due to his corpulence and in part because he's coming down with the plague. Barbara Bel Geddes plays Widmark's long-suffering, but understanding, wife; hers isn't that big of a part but she does a good job anyhow. Direction, up to the climactic chase sequence, is more than ably handled by the great Elia Kazan.

An interesting thing about Panic in the Streets is that it came out the same year (1950) as a movie with a very similar theme: The Killer That Stalked New York. Panic in the Streets is the better-remembered movie today, although each one is quite good in its own way. While Panic in the Streets has the benefit of the much better cast and director, The Killer That Stalked New York has the advantage of being told in a docudrama format. It's something that you might have expected Fox to do, having done so many other docudramas.

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