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still from Panic in the Streets
reviewed by Donald Melanson | March 25 , 2005

-You 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 you.
-With apologies to your mother, that's the second mistake she made.

-Richard 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 story.

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.

Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed 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 Stewart.

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.

Panic in the Streets (1950)
Directed 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 role.

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 Alley, The Street with No Name, and Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo. All three are out June 7th.

Donald 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.

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Film Noir on DVD

Two sets packed with noirs reviewed.

The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection

Nine classic films, including The Wrong Man, now on DVD.



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