Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Panic in the Streets

(Elia Kazan, 1950)
It may be about plague in New Orleans, but it's really about the nature of power and authority in America. City cop Paul Douglas and federal health agent Richard Widmark duke it out among themselves, while testing their jurisdiction over crooks, longshoremen, and the media. Meanwhile, "Walter Jack Palance" demonstrates his remarkably complex reign over the streets - with benevolence, persuasion and coercion all in the kit alongside his startling bursts of violence, he often seems to hold more cards than the 'authorities' themselves. The domestic power structure isn't ignored either, with wives asserting themselves all over the place and Widmark's young son at the center of a dozen tiny battles; the near-mutiny when the ship's captain tries to slough off the plague is another demonstration of the fragile consent on which authority rests. This latter insight insures that there's nothing pat or triumphalist about the film's conclusion; the game continues. The staging is as rich as the themes, strikingly modern in its approach to dialogue and character, and gorgeously designed to boot. Kazan is really on top of this material, and if it doesn't quite pack a knockout punch, that's only because he's playing a different game.

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