In this series, depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting, I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
Given the current COVID-19 rampage, and my rather melancholic, long-time predisposition to be an epidemic junkie, this first essay will draw on two thrillers from 1950: Elia Kazan’s, Panic in the Streets, and The Killer That Stalked New York, a more obscure film, by director Earl McEvoy.
When I began to give some thought to this post, I did a quick google search for ‘Epidemic Noir’ and discovered something close, Contagion Noir. Contagion Noir popped up back in 2011 when the movie, Contagion, was released, and was subsequently reviewed on the blog, www.criminalelement.com. This site is a wildly engaging book and film noir encyclopedia and I highly recommend it. The one essay, Contagion Noir, addressed the two films I want to talk about so it’s possible I will be covering territory already covered. That has never stopped me before. Even in duplication, I will try and be creative and original in my approach.
With that caveat fessed up, lets begin.
On a New Year’s Eve back in the early 1990’s, a few friends and I celebrated by watching a couple of films I had selected on my now long-departed VHS player. One of those films was Panic in the Streets. Photographed in New Orleans and starring Richard Widmark as a Public Health Doctor and Paul Douglas as a grumpy New Orleans cop, the film begins with a marvelously jazzy musical night ride in the city, a ride that ends on a dark, somber back alley street, a street where your gut tells you anything might happen. The camera sweeps upstairs to the second floor where six guys have been playing poker. Rather suddenly one of them, a sweaty, feverish fellow, ahead in the winnings and apparently just off a boat from somewhere, has the temerity to want to leave the game. This does not sit well with his compatriots. A few of the players follow him out into the lonely night, eventually catching up to him and pummeling him unmercifully. Then, without warning, Jack Palance, Blackie to friends and foes alike, the alpha male of the motley group, unhesitatingly caps the foreigner. Twice.
Clearly, these guys take their poker seriously. More seriously than life. And, wouldn’t you know it, in no time we discover that the haplessly plugged foreigner had Pneumonic Plague. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneumonic_plague.
Fortunately, Richard Widmark plays a take charge Public Health Doctor, a Dr. Fauci kind of guy, but younger. In no time, he convinces a gathering of cops and politicos (including a very take-charge Mayor) that they have 48 hours to find the person or persons responsible for plugging the dead guy before they have an epidemic.
He cites a real life 1924 Pneumonic Plague incident. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1924_Los_Angeles_pneumonic_plague_outbreak
Then he hits them with a powerhouse soliloquy. “Pneumonic plague can be spread like a common cold…You have forty-eight hours. Shortly after that you have the makings of an epidemic. I may be an alarmist…but I have seen this disease work. I’m telling you if it ever gets loose it can spread over the entire country…and the result will be more horrible than any of can imagine.”
The balance of the movie is the chase and the conclusion. Why would I say much more and spoil it for you? I will mention the odd tidbit of plot but that will be it.
While The Killer That Stalked New York has a few domestic moments, all fraught with duplicitous tension, I might add, Panic in the Streets, for all its darkness, has some lovely moments of marital and parental harmony. And a really cute kid to boot, eight-year-old Tommy Rettig, who would go on to star in Lassie in the mid-fifties, age out of cinematic Lotus land in the early 1960’s, and, eventually, become something of a Computer programming legend.
Another mid-fifty child star also appears very briefly in The Killer that Stalked New York. Billy Gray, who spent the four years from 1954-58 as Bud Anderson, the only son in the prototype fifties family show, Father Knows Best, was an incredibly busy twelve-year-old in 1950, having roles in a dozen movies and TV series, including a walk-on in one of the great noir’s, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart.
Immediately after Billy Gray’s walk on (the Mayor is reffing a pickup baseball game with some kids and gets called away to deal with the epidemic, so he asks “Pinkie” to take over) the Mayor agrees to vaccinate 8,000,000 New Yorkers for free. There follows a beautiful montage of inoculation. Everyone gets the needle, starting with the Mayor. A Newspaper Heading reads “MASS VACCINATIONS BEGIN.” In a Barber Shop, men argue over the need. One Trumpian fellow says, “Two Cases of Smallpox don’t make no epidemic!” This character then says, “Nobody can get it unless he rubs up against someone who’s got it.”
On a musical note Panic in the Streets offers some great jazz and blues scores and the shots of home life are filled with the gentle sweet sounds of Glenn Miller’s, I Know Why and So Do You. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPh_RycALQA .
The Killer That Stalked New York is not quite as musically blessed.
While Panic in The Streets is a top-notch location movie with a wealth of emerging stars, a great score, and, even, eventually, the recipient of an Academy Award for Best Writing , Motion Picture Story, The Killer That Stalked New York is, by some standards, a slighter lesser effort. Still, it has significant credibility in my book (yes, the one I am still writing.)
It begins, as you will see if you watch it, assuming You Tube doesn’t take it down https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_y3c9mXhvyY with a slightly deceptive image of a huge shadowy woman hovering over the New York skyline, clutching a pistol, though sadly not in this poster, but still looking menacing, even more menacing than Jack Palance. If that’s possible.
The story, based on a real life incident a from a couple of years earlier, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1947_New_York_City_smallpox_outbreak , moves along at an infectious pace. The “killer” is returning from Cuba being tailed by a Treasury Agent. Clearly there is a traditional crime unfolding. Soon though, we watch the health of the “killer” painfully, feverishly portrayed by Evelyn Keyes (who made her first serious cinematic bones as Scarlet O’Hara’s younger sister,) start to decline. We bear witness to those whom she comes in contact with, encounters in her desperate journey to get to her philandering hubby and partner in crime. We watch her sad scurrying through the streets of New York, frantically, almost obliviously unaware of her own tragic tale.
At one point, a friendly cop (someone who ups her anxiety, we can tell) intercepts her, and guides her into a nearby clinic. She has a caring moment with an ailing child, a child about to enter hospital for whooping cough, Pertussis, a deadly child killing disease at the time. The physician at the clinic (played by the dashing William Bishop who died much too young and who was in a favourite comedy from my childhood, It’s a Great Life,) checks Keyes out quickly, gives her a bottle of some unnamed medication, and sends her on her way. I should note here that after he dispatches her, he does a modest job of washing his hands -not even close to twenty seconds. In a subsequent scene at the hospital, he and a colleague do an exemplary job of the same activity (and the colleague gives it almost to a full minute.) A bravado performance of hand washing.
From then on, the story unfolds with the snap and crackle of a well-honed B flick. As in Panic in The Streets, a flurry of inoculations occurs. Both of these epidemics, smallpox and pneumonic plague, are classics, each having made numerous stops down through the years unlike COVID-19.
Both Panic in the Streets and The Killer That Stalked New York have a grand array of supporting actors, many who have few or no lines but who lend a realistic aura throughout.
One actor in fact, Dan Riss, is in both films. In New Orleans, he’s an irritating newspaper man who needs to be restrained from publishing the story that will panic the city. In New York, he’s a detective/public health investigator tracking down viral contacts. I imagine the redemption was comforting.
A few other actors who stand out for me in TKTSNY are Walter Burke as a larcenous bellboy and Jim Backus, as a lecherous nightclub owner (and just beginning his long running career as Mr. Magoo.)
I don’t want to ruin the endings for anyone. And I admit that here and there, I went off on a few tangents. That is part of the delight I find in writing about old films. Tangents. There are always tangents. Both film noirs were shot on location. Panic in the Street, as stated earlier, was shot on location in New Orleans. The Killer That Stalked New York, was, not surprisingly, shot on the streets of the Big Apple. As I write this, one of these two cities is an epicenter for COVIC 19 and the other is on its way up the COVIC 19 nightmare ladder. Both movies and their real life urban-counterparts are peopled by positive role-model politicians. I like to think that in some small way, these films might provide local, state and federal politicians of today with some smart and principled role modelling. Clearly some of our leaders don’t need the instruction. Others clearly do.
About Bill Engleson:
I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun
My website/blog is www.engleson.ca