Pros: bravura performances and cinematography
Cons: maybe slowing down for a domestic/romantic interlude?
Elia Kazan was a stage director first, and, in even his movies not adapted from stage plays, images are subsidiary to lines of dialogue. Kazan was very good at photographing the delivery of lines, including three of the most famous ones in all of twentieth-century American culture ("I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers," "I coulda been a contenda," and "Stella!").
Kazan is nearly as (in)famous for his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on communists (mostly ex-communists) naming names. It seems to me that Kazan's movies after his testimony (Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, America, America, Wild River) are as critical of capitalism as those before his cooperation in rooting out "red" sympathizers from Hollywood. In passing, "Panic in the Streets" is sarcastic about the business leaders of New Orleans, though presenting public officials (mayor, police captain, public health doctor) in very favorable lights.
A lot of "Panic in the Streets" is shot on a waterfront, adumbrating not only Kazan's most honored film ("On the Waterfront") but its star, Richard Widmark's triumph in "Pickup on South Street" (it also has a chase sequence even better than the one of Widmark through the streets of London at the end of "Night and the City"). "Panic in the Streets" can also be read as prefiguring the necessity of turning in one's friend in the public interest. (Loyalty was not a cardinal virtue in some pre-HUAC-testimony Kazan films, including "Boomerang!", "Sea of Grass").
"Panic in the Streets" opens in very noir style with a long tracking shot through the streets and into a seedy-looking hotel where a poker game involving Blackie, a gangster (Jack Palance in his first movie role), two of his henchmen Fitch and Poldi (Zero Mostel and Tommy Cook). The brother of one of them has won, but is feeling ill, and wants to leave with the $191 he has won. He is pursued across railroad tracks and shot by Blackie, who then orders his flunkies to throw the corpse in the river.
The next morning the corpse is discovered and taken to the morgue. Though the cause of death was gunshots, the coroner is unsettled by examination of the body. The scene shifts to Lieutenant Commander Dr. Clinton Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service, enjoying a rare day off and spending time with his son Tommy (Tommy Rettig three years before "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T."). Nancy Reed (Barbara Bel Geddes, eight years before "Vertigo") summons her husband to the phone and he grumpily heads in to see what the problem is.
The problem is pneumonic plague, something with which Dr. Reed has experience. He announces the need to find the killer and anyone else with whom the dead man came in contact within the next 48 hours (we'll let slide that the good doctor could not have known how long the dead man had been (a) in town and (b) infectious). Mayor Murray (good name! played by Waller Fowler an interesting name) grasps the danger and orders the police to make finding the killer its number-one priority.
The cranky police captain put in charge of the investigation, Tom Warren (played by the chronically displeased Paul Douglas) thinks the task is certain to fail, and Dr. Reed does not like his attitude. Their distaste for each other's attitude drives the movie almost as much as the search for the killer (the audience knows there are three men, but the police and public health officials don't).
The investigation proceeds, seaplaning out to a confrontation with the captain of the ship on which the dead man arrived in the US), finding the owners of a Greek restaurant who cover up when they should have cooperated, the rooming-house where the brother is now sick, culminating in a chase through a coffee warehouse and a boat that has unloaded its cargo.
Spoiler (?) Alert
The doctor and the policeman come to respect each other (something of a genre convention), the worst of the bad guys has an ignominious end (even more of a genre convention, ca. 1950), the city and country are saved (ditto), there is not mass "panic in the streets," and credit goes where credit is not due (to the local health politician). Also, the chase is made more entertaining by the Blackie-Fitch dynamics (the bully determined to keep on and the whiner begging to give up) as (the different but also sardonic dynamics) in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
End Spoiler (?) Alert
The Moral of the Story Is?
Cooperating with authorities is shown as not only a civic duty, but as necessary to self-preservation, though there are officials who are more concerned about keeping the public ignorant than about keeping it safe, and even this imperative is muddied by the movie's siding with the heroes keeping a newspaperman from reporting what is going on (very Cheney White House, no?). So, if I were seeking guidance from Kazan's movie, I'm not sure whether I should believe that the government knows best and is doing everything it should to protect me and welcome being kept ignorant (of why it was necessary to invade Iraq and the understanding of how to bring democracy to the Middle East that our sagacious leaders have and are implementing but cannot explain or allow to be questioned...)
It is possible that Kazan at the time considered the plague a metaphor for communism and approved hauling everyone in for questioning. Unfortunately, in his booklength interview of Kazan, Jeff Young did not ask him this. Fitch, incidentally, is hauled in and let go (like some of those detained at Guantanemo and released to return to al-Quaeda?).
Or is it just a thriller?
"Panic in the Streets" is more cinematic than the movies Kazan directed before it. The camera of Joe MacDonald (who also lensed "Pinky" and "Viva Zapata!" for Kazan; and had filmed Widmark in "Yellow Sky" and "Down to the Sea in Ships" the previous year and would also shoot "Pickup on South Street") roams the city of night (and daytime police stations) in fine noir fashion, with many long shots (including some indoors, in the coffee warehouse). The movie also contains full-throttle performances from a very good cast that was not very familiar to movie audiences at the time (Palance's debut, Mostel in a de facto screen debut, Widmark in his break-out year, and Douglas in the second year of his screen career). The original screenplay by Edward and Edna Anhalt won an Oscar (that should have gone to "The Gunfighter," in my opinion...)
I'm not sure that Dr. Reed's stop at home, something less that a domestic idyll, should interrupt the momentum of the investigation, but it has a lot of wry humor and contrasts interestingly with the only other male-female couple in the movie, Fitch and his even-less-docile wife Aggie (Mary Liswood) on whom Fitch tries to take out some of his frustrations from being bossed around by Blackie. (Their scene in Blackie's shop does not interrupt the momentum, because fleeing the Big Easy as Fitch wants to do has enormous consequences for the spread of the disease.)
All in all, an entertaing noirish medical thriller. And New Orleans would also be the scene of Kazan's next movie, the screen adaptation of a play he had directed called "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Widmark also turned in one of his extreme psychotic performances in 1950 in Joseph L. Mankewiecz's No Way Out, a far nastier specimen even than Palance's Blackie here.
For later instances of good guy Widmark performances in roles rubbing, respectively, James Stewart and Henry Fonda the wrong way, see
Two Rode Together and Warlock
And let me again say that Widmark is overdue for a lifetime achievment Oscar (his only nomination was in his first and very psychotic role in 1947 in "Kiss of Death").