Archive for September, 2010

Panic in the Streets/ A Letter to Elia

September 29, 2010

Last Thursday, I saw Elia Kazan’s 1950 film Panic in the Streets at Detroit’s grassroots indie Burton Theatre.  It was pretty great.   I loved it.  I hadn’t seen it in ages.   I wish it would’ve been on film, instead of “digital projection.”  You get all those fleeting swirls of color popping up inside the edges of the black and white.  Still though, it was good to see it on a big screen with an audience.

It was filmed on location in New Orleans.  The next year, Kazan would go back to New Orleans again for a very different film, A Streetcar Named Desire

Panic in the Street‘s a tough, crisp film noir.   Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas are the heroes, in a race against time.  Barbara Bel Geddes played the Widmark character’s wife and Tommy Rettig, his son.  Jack Palance was threatening in his movie debut.  Zero Mostel was sort of a soft tough guy, a “sniveling weasel” type.

It involves trying to catch criminals who are (unknowingly) carrying germs for a potential deadly plague.  The equation of criminality with a contagious disease is interesting.  There’s a subtext equating money and hunger for money with disease as well.  Can capitalism make you sick? 

“Money costs too much.”  I think I read that in a crime novel once, but also I see  “Money often costs too much.” attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In any case, it can get expensive.

There’s good photography by and good use of New Orleans streets and docks.

They opened the evening’s program with a “sneak preview” of A Letter to Elia.  It’s directed by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese.  It’s a portrait of director Elia Kazan.  There are a lot of film clips, especially from On the Waterfront, East of Eden and America, America.

He’s controversial because he named names in the McCarthy/ blacklist era.  It seems to me that in choosing between doing the right thing and being a good human being or compromising, he chose the latter.  He chose art and career over “moral values.”  It was a tough choice.  If he had refused to cooperate, we wouldn’t have many of his best films.

If you’re interested, it’s supposed to be on television next week (early October) as part of PBS American Masters series.

a review of Panic in the Streets:

Cinematographer Joe MacDonald:

an interview: