Panic In the Streets (1950, directed by Elia Kazan)


The plague has come to New Orleans.

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.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #3: The Purple Gang (dir by Frank McDonald)


The 1960 gangster film, The Purple Gang, really took me by surprise.

The film opens with U.S. Rep. James Roosevelt standing in front of his desk.  James Roosevelt was the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He was a notoriously shady businessman who, before entering politics, dabbled a bit in Hollywood.  That probably explains how he eventually came to be standing in his congressional office, filming the introduction for a low-budget B-movie about Detroit gangsters.  Roosevelt tells us that he’s already watched the movie that we’re about to see and that he can assure us that it is an accurate portrayal of not just the history of The Purple Gang but also of how 1920s bootlegging led to a host of other crimes.  Roosevelt goes on to compare bootleggers to modern day drug pushers.  The most interesting thing about the speech is that it almost sounds like a defense of prohibition, the law that FDR famously opposed.

To use a term from the film’s era, it’s kind of a square opening.  James Roosevelt comes across as being so vacuously earnest that it’s almost as if Beto O’Rourke got his hands on a time machine and went back to 1960.  At the same time, there’s something oddly charming about how awkward it is.  One can only imagine how audiences would react if a film today opened with a speech from a congressperson.  I guess some parts of the country would love it.  Down here in Texas, the theater would probably get set on fire.

Now, based on that less than edgy opening, you might be justified in expecting that The Purple Gang will just be your standard 1960s crime thriller but it most definitely is not.  The Purple Gang is a tough and violet movie, one that is full of shadowy and sometimes disturbing imagery.  A very young Robert Blake plays Honeyboy Willard, a teenage hoodlum who, through pure sociopathic ruthlessness, takes over the rackets in Detroit.  Barry Sullivan is Lt. Harley, the police detective whose quest to bring down the Purple Gang leads to him losing almost everything that was important to him.

Our first impression of Lt. Harley comes when he skeptically listens to a liberal social worker, Joan McNamara (Jody Lawrance), explain that criminals are not born but are instead made by their circumstances.  Harley obviously doesn’t agree.  Later, while Joan is walking around Detroit at night, she is attacked, rape,d and then murdered by the same criminals that she was earlier defending.  With the city outraged over Joan’s murder, Lt. Harley steps up his efforts to bring down the gang so Honeyboy murders Harley’s pregnant wife.

While Harley seeks revenge, Honeyboy is busy making deals with Canadian liquor distributors and building the Purple Gang into the biggest criminal enterprise in the northern midwest.  When a group of distraught businessmen, upset at being extorted by the Purple Gang, turns to the Mafia for help, Honeyboy declares war….

Of course, despite James Roosevelt’s assurance at the start of the film and the semi-documentary approach that director Frank McDonald takes to the material, the truth is far different from the movie.   In real life, The Purple Gang was predominantly made up of the children of recent immigrants from Russia and Poland.  It was run not by Honeyboy Willard but by the four Bernstein brothers.  The Purple Gang did not go to war with the Mafia but instead, they were allied with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in their attempts to create a national crime syndicate.  They were also closely allied with Al Capone, to the extent that it’s been suggested that Capone used Purple Gang gunmen to carry out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  The Purple Gang eventually fell apart due to infighting and the end of prohibition, with the majority of the members who weren’t in jail simply joining other gangs.

So, no, The Purple Gang is not historically accurate but it’s still an effective and surprisingly brutal gangster film.  The noirish photography makes certain scenes seem almost as if they’ve been lifted straight out of a nightmare and, historically accurate or not, the film does do a good job of showing how organized crime came to exist in the United States.  It’s a quick-paced and energetic film and it features a great performance from Robert Blake as the chillingly sociopathic Honeyboy.  The Purple Gang is a low-budget B-movie that packs a punch.

Plus, James Roosevelt did ask you to watch.  Are you going to say no to James Roosevelt?

James Roosevelt, film critic

Previous Offers You Can’t Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface

The Three Covers of Dream World


Dream World was a magazine that existed, briefly, in 1957.  Each issue dealt with stories of men who had “incredible powers.”  Judging from the covers of Dream World, the only possible use for any of those powers was to either get laid or get rich.  Apparently, readers in 1957 didn’t feel that they needed special psychic powers to do either of those because Dream World only lasted for three issues.  Here are the three covers of Dream World:

by Ed Valigursky

This first issue is from February of 1957 and it features a cover by Ed Valigursky.  According to the cover, it featured a story called “Ways to Get A Gal.”  Apparently, in 1957, it helped if you had x-ray vision.  Then you could spend all day staring through a brick wall and seeing what books she had sitting on her book shelf.  I’m sure that’s what the man on the cover is focusing on, right?

by John Parker

This second issue is from May of 1957.  According to the cover, this issue featured a man who could make his dreams come true and apparently, he’s been dreaming about a startlet with sharp eyebrows and bountiful cleavage.  This issue also featured something called “You Too Can Win A Harem.”  Hopefully, this was a story and not an actual contest.

by Ed Valigursky

The third and final issue came out in August of 1957 and featured a cover by Ed Valigursky.  This one featured a story about a man whose touch turned stone to flesh, which I guess is what’s happening on the cover.  It also features a story about Mr. Milford’s Magic Camera, which took naked pictures in the days before mirror selfies.

There would be no more issues of Dream World after this but a good cover, like a dream, never truly dies.

 

Music Video of the Day: REALiTi by Grimes (2015, dir by Grimes)


It occurred to me that I have yet to congratulate Elon Musk and Grimes on the birth of little X Æ A-Xii.  It’s interesting to note that Elon and Grimes first discovered each other on twitter, where they independently came up with the same pun.  Personally, my favorite pun has always been, “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.”

Enjoy!