It's On: How I See the New Orleans of "Panic in the Streets"

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The New Orleans of Panic in the Streets

Join the #NolaMovieNight conversation, as presented by The Historic New Orleans Collection, on April 12th at 7 PM CST, on Twitter.

In the horror movie host vehicle The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus, New Orleans is featured first and foremost as the home for the main character. It’s treated as an incidental location for those unfamilar with the city, but for residents and lovers all over, importance is found: “Fight Mental Health” a poster reads on Morgus’ wall; There’s a bar he frequents, where other misfits and miscreants hang out; A slapstick car race occurs throughout city, showcasing old and new infrastructure. New Orleans is a city of and for characters of many sorts, informaing on and informed by such oddballs.

Some movies give the city a mere surface level appreciation, but there are more than a few that show it as a portrait for something bigger. The 1950 release Panic in the Streets is one such film.

Let’s forget the all too relevant plot of stopping a potential disease outbreak for a moment - if that’s possible. Technically, it’s the thrust of the story, but there’s more going on. Panic is an anxiety attack of errors, a thrilling near-comedy that could’ve been resolved most quickly without the worry over worry. And in post WWII America, fear itself was oh so easy to give oneself to.

I always saw the Japanese Interment Camps as a cop out to fear myself, but the greatest generation had so much piled on to deal with and overcome, you’d think certain lessons would be learned. Five years later, and a film set in a humid den of cops and robbers would see and foresee this current and coming panic. Whether it be economic or moral, manufactureand for control or self-sustaining and out of control, we’d be fueled by and with inequites attacking our very lives. After such a war, what’s left? Where do you go?

A port city of grand culture becomes the almost epicenter of a plague breakout in the story, investigated by police and consulting government doctors, and being unknowingly almost apread by two-bit hustlers. Storylines following these two groups of authority, major and minor, state and street, converge in one of my favorite chase scenes of all time, but not before relationship turmoil and the pressures of the times compound on everyone, under the heat of a muggy city - perfect for a dangerous disease to fester.

It’s no coincidence that the movie begins above a jazz hall (Preservation?) and over a card game involving immigrants and local hoodlums. They’re all seeking an edge that’ll get them one step closer to a better life, no mattter the cost: An immigrant gets sick on his way to a new land; two shakedown artists desperately get caught up in a scheme for unkown maybe riches; a government medical officer is distracted by family duties; and a career policeman struggles with control over something higher than his pay grade. Gaining a heads up on the narrative would be a boost in confidence for all of these men, but releasing any kind of a lead to anyone is a no go. And yet, relaxing and easing up would’ve truly helped and resolved things quicker.

For Dr. Reed and Blackie, easing up was never an option. Reed, the man leading the 48-hour contact tracing search, might be a family man by appearance and obligation, but struggles with duty to health and country, inside and outside. His wife tries to spell things out for him, and maybe he’s receptive, but the desperation for an overthought answer just may consume him. Blackie, the thug leader of his small part of the world, is the inverse. On top, he’s a man in total control, keeping those around him on a gripped leash. At the bottom, of course, he’s as reactionary and impulsive and cowardly as anyone could possibly be.

Both Reed and Blackie share the command thread of being on the hunt for something just out of reach. Safety, security, health and well-being sure, but also some vindication that all they’ve done and all they are isn’t for nought. This is what keeps men up at night. This is what keeps them cruel to each other. This is what happens under pressure, humid and sad. Welcome to the Gulf South.

Fear. Tension. Control. All feed into one another.

New Orleans is indeed an epicenter, but for something entirely unexpected yet outright honest - America in a time of great uncertainty. What did we win? What’s been lost and are we seeking it? Like the best cinematic representations of any city, the mood and the ethereal are spot on, amid action and behavior. During the chase, a cop is told not to shoot anyone. Immediately, he voices an argument, as if to say shooting is his main function. I’ve heard stories of the New Orleans Police Department from this period that still wrestle inside me. The scene at the port, full of sweat and absolute desperation for escape, is a thesis for everything the movie is about. For everything New Orleans is about. For everything we were about back then and even now.

This is a city in America and of America, for better and worse and more. Misfits without mistakes, sweat beading down our brows, and the goal of a tomorrow at all pouring out of our pores. The panic is on, then and forever.

Come back to this post often, as I may edit in some additional observations and clarifications, and catch the film at 7 PM CST on April 12th on your favorite streaming service or home release.