from Panic in the Streets
by Donald Melanson |
25 , 2005
know, my mother always told me if you look deep enough in
anybody you'd always find some good, but I don't know about
-With apologies to your mother, that's the second mistake
Widmark and Paul Douglas, Panic in the Streets.
Directed by Otto Preminger
On the surface, Laura seems to have more in common with
the A-list Hollywood pictures of the 1940s than the dark, seedy
world of film noir. Even the title stands out among the likes of
The Big Sleep, Born to Kill, and Kiss Me Deadly.
And the production itself is certainly a lot glossier than the average
noir, let alone the truly gritty ones like Detour. But as
the film unravels, starting with the famous "I shall never forget
the weekend Laura died" opening narration, there's no doubt that
Laura fits solidly in the noir canon.
Directed by the great Otto Preminger, Laura stars Gene
Tierney in the title role and Dana Andrews as the detective that
falls for her, along with Clifton Webb and a young Vincent Price
in some excellent supporting performances.
True to the noir tradition, Laura has a complex plot
and even more complex characters. At the center of which is Laura
herself, initially seen only in the form of a painting hanging ominously
in her apartment, where Andrews is questioning possible suspects
for her murder. That's about as far as I'll go describing the plot
but, needless to say, it's anything but a straight-ahead detective
Stylistically, Laura is almost deceptively simple. For much
of the film, it's basically a drawing room mystery, but it's broken
up with some striking exterior scenes of rain-soaked streets and
other locations draped in shadows.
Fox Home Entertainment's Laura DVD is labeled #1 in
their new Fox Film Noir line and it sure has gotten things
off to a good start. In addition to a great transfer the disc has
two audio commentaries (one by DVD regular Rudy Behlmer and one
by composer David Raskin and film professor Jeanine Basinger) and
two full-length episodes of A&E's Biography (on Gene
Tierney and Vincent Price). Also included is a short deleted scene
that can be viewed on its own or reinserted at its proper place
in the film.
Northside 777 (1948)
by Henry Hathaway
The end of the 1940s saw some significant changes in American movies
one of the biggest being the near immediate impact of the
Italian Neo-Realist movement lead by filmmakers like Vittorio De
Sica and Roberto Rossellini. The hallmarks of these films (shooting
on location, using non-actors) were quickly adopted by some of the
most prominent American directors of the time, an early example
being Henry Hathaway's Call Northside 777, starring Jimmy
The film is based on the true story of a man falsely imprisoned
for the murder of a police officer, but as James Ursini and Alain
Silver explain in their commentary track on the DVD, a number of
aspects of the story were changed for the film. For starters, the
newspaper editor was changed from a woman to a man (played by Lee
J. Cobb no less), and any evidence of police corruption (of which
there was plenty) was sanitized for 1940s audiences.
Nevertheless, the film has enough hard edges to be considered a
film noir. It also represents an important transition in Jimmy Stewart's
career; helping him overcome the youthful image from films like
It's a Wonderful Life, leading towards more complex roles
like those in Vertigo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Although some interior sets were used, most of the film was
shot on location in Chicago, including an incredible looking multi-level
circular prison Hathaway even went so far to incorporate
some actual documentary footage of prohibition-era Chicago. Further
adding to the semi-documentary style of the film, there is no traditional
score, only sporadic use of music from sources within the film -
something that probably could have been used to a greater extent.
Despite its shortcomings, including a not entirely believable
scene near the end, Call Northside 777 is an engaging film
that illustrates an important point in American film history. The
transfer on Fox's DVD doesn't seem quite as well restored as Laura
or Panic in the Streets, but it's still perfectly acceptable.
In addition to the aforementioned commentary, the DVD also has a
number of trailers for a number of Fox noirs and a short newsreel
from the film's premiere.
in the Streets (1950)
by Elia Kazan
While most critics would undoubtedly pick Laura as the best
film in this new lot of DVDs, my personal favorite is Elia Kazan's
Panic in the Streets. Like Call Northside 777, Kazan
shot on location, in this case in New Orleans. But unlike Hathaway's
film, Kazan shot entirely on location, with no sets whatsoever,
and with an incredible number of non-actors.
Although not based on a true story, Panic in the Streets
still firmly fits in the mold of the semi-documentary style narrative
films discussed above, a style that would continue to be prevalent
throughout the 1950s, arguably perfected with Hitchcock's fantastic
The Wrong Man.
In addition, Panic in the Streets is notable for being
one of Kazan's favorite films of his. He considered it to be his
first "real" film, or as DVD commentators Ursini and Silver put
it: the film where Kazan "made the transition from a director
of performances to a director of films".
Noir mainstay Richard Widmark stars as a government health official
trying to prevent an outbreak of plague in New Orleans after a corpse
turns up carrying the disease. The film also has a number of excellent
supporting performances including Paul Douglas as a skeptical police
captain, and a wonderfully menacing Jack Palance in his first screen
In many respects, the film is very similar to another classic
noir released the same year, Rudolph Mate's D.O.A. In both
instances, a bombshell is dropped near the beginning of the film
that instantly quickens the pace and results in a frantic chase
to resolve it. In D.O.A. that means finding the person that
has poisoned Edmund O'Brien before he dies. In Panic in the Streets,
it's finding the men carrying the plague before it spreads any further.
They also both make significant use of another strong noir convention:
jazz which gives both films a rhythm that would be lacking
with more traditional film music.
Although it doesn't have as many extras as Fox's Laura DVD
(all it has is Ursini and Silver's great commentary track), Panic
in the Streets looks the best of the three films in this first
wave. And it seems like we can expect lots more film noir from Fox
soon. They've announced plans to release 24 film noir titles in
the next two years. Up next: Nightmare
Street with No Name, and Sam Fuller's House
of Bamboo. All three are out June 7th.
Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack and
a freelance writer for hire. He also rants and raves about movies
on his film blog.