A dead body is found on the New Orleans wharf. He’s dead because he was shot several times but an autopsy reveals that he would have died anyways because he was suffering from a form of the bubonic plague! In order to keep the plague from spreading through the city (and also to hopefully save the lives of anyone who has been infected), Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) have to isolate everyone who the man came into contact with. But first, they’re going to have to discover that man’s identity and also how he came to end up dead on the docks of New Orleans.
What Dr. Reed doesn’t know is that the man was named Kolchak and that he was murdered by a small-time gangster named Blackie (Jack Palance, making his film debut). Now, Blackie and his associate, Fitch (Zero Mostel) are both infected and are both looking to get out of town. Of course, if either one of them succeeds in leaving New Orleans, they’ll spread the plague through the entire country.
Largely filmed on location in New Orleans and focusing as much on Dr. Reed as it does on the criminals that he’s pursuing, Panic In The Streets is an effective mix of film noir, medical drama and police procedural. Seen under normal circumstances, Panic in the Streets is a good thriller. Seen during a time when the news is dominated by COVID-19 and riots in large cities, Panic in the Streets feels damn near prophetic.
Richard Widmark does a good job playing Dr. Reed, who is portrayed as being a no-nonsense professional. He’s type of doctor who you want on your side if there’s a plague coming to town. Not surprisingly, though, the film is stolen by Jack Palance as the smirking Blackie. This was Palance’s film debut but he already knew how to be the most intimidating man in the room. Zero Mostel also has some good scenes as Blackie’s associate and his sweaty and fearful performance provides a good contrast to Palance’s more controlled villainy.
One interesting thing about Panic in The Streets is that Dr. Reed and Capt. Warren are actually able to convince a newspaper reporter to delay filing a report about the plague, mostly to avoid a mass panic in the streets. Though he takes some convincing (and Warren’s methods aren’t exactly Constitutional), the reporter finally agrees to hold off on reporting for four hours. With the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, that’s not something that could happen today.