Neglected noir: Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Threat is ever-present in these two gritty American films from the early 1950s, one directed by the great Elia Kazan and the other by actress-turned-auteur Ida Lupino.

If Panic in the Streets is overshadowed now by the two Elia Kazan movies that followed shortly afterwards — A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and then On the Waterfront (1954) it suffered no such comparisons on its release, and indeed managed to scoop an Academy Award (in the now-defunct Story category).

Today, of course, that story is not as shocking as it might have been in 1950. After AIDS, after Ebola, after the hordes of zombies and smaller number of epidemic thrillers ( Outbreak, Contagion, etcetera) that these fears spawned onto the screen, Panic’s tale of an upright New Orleans public-health official — a very young Richard Widmark — trying to prevent plague from spreading through and beyond his city might seem charmingly naive.

After all, even if its Patient Zero is a foreign sailor (no great surprise in the midst of the Second Red Scare), the baddies here are not governments or sinister pharma corporations but traditional hoodlums who seem to belong to an earlier era of film-making, led by Jack Palance (credited as “Walter Jack Palance”) in a decidedly 30s-Cagney manner and also including a startlingly youthful Zero Mostel (who knew he was ever less than middle-aged?).

Exactly how the baddies become set against the plague-vaccination effort is something of an over-involved MacGuffin, but it’s evident that Kazan is far more interested in them — and indeed in other civilians such as the fine Alexis Minotis (better known for classical theatre) as a café owner — than he is in noble Widmark.

So, even if Panic is a much less accomplished and bluntly powerful movie than Waterfront (like Palance, the whole film recalls an earlier Hollywood period) we can see here the same fascination with untempered physicality. This is striking from a very early scene, where that first plague victim is cornered outside a warehouse by two of the toughs — he is prey, cowering as they close in, one of them loping ape-like through the expressionist shadows — and again at the end, where Palance scuttles along beneath a wharf, reminding us of a rat.

Even more noticeable, and weirdly foreshadowing the zombies of later decades, is the way Kazan uses crowds. They are largely faceless, not picturesque or dramatic, but they are everywhere, and obtrusive even when not dramatically necessary, for example at the discovery of Patient Zero’s body. Later we see characters having to literally elbow their way through the press of people at a police station, at a diner, at a seamen’s recruitment hall.

On a ship boarded by Widmark and his sardonic cop companion (the excellent Paul Douglas), the crew just stand and stare as if they are ghosts already; at a meeting of officials discussing how to deal with the plague, there’s a memorable shot of folded coats and hats in a row, like grave markers; most of all, outside a bar where Palance and his gang are holding court, there’s a quick and chilling glimpse of a passive, indistinguishable mass.

They are not doing anything — few of Panic’s crowds are — but they are threatening nonetheless because, once infected with the plague, they will become as deadly as flesh-eaters, and as far-reaching and difficult to avoid: “We’re all in a community — the same one,” says Widmark. They are not panicking, but we (and Widmark) should when we see them, because we know this; that is the way to read the title.

This air of unease that subtly unbalances an otherwise rather pat and formulaic story is underlined by Kazan’s use of real locations with a pervasive messiness to them (and frequent breaches, therefore, of the rule of Chekhov’s Gun). There are coffee cups and old metal tubs, there is rubbish strewn on the ground, there is even a cat waddling behind Widmark in the semi-climactic coffee warehouse scene — for no apparent purpose other than to reflect the randomness of reality, unless it is to cast Widmark as a cat hunting the rat Palance.

The same style extends to the photography. In distinct contrast to Waterfront, the Kazan of Panic does not seem over-concerned with framing and is much more interested in activity, often using tracking shots to follow characters through space; he is also happy for unimportant action to be going on in the background, the human equivalent of those messy sets, frequently supplied by actual New Orleans residents.

All this restless grittiness vanishes when we’re in Widmark’s home, however: in terms of both mise en scène and photography, the passages with his wife are far more conventional. The threat, we’re reminded, is out there, amid the crowds.

And though Kazan makes no secret that he is siding with Widmark rather than the great unwashed — there’s a scene where an enterprising reporter is arrested to shut him up, with an air of approval which ought not to be surprising given the director’s later willingness to identify Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee — he certainly does not trivialise the bad guys either.

Old-fashioned it may be, but Panic in the Streets is a deeply serious film about existential threat, and everything that implied in the America of 1950.

While Panic in the Streets is largely about enemies within, Ida Lupino’s second directorial credit The Hitch-Hiker seems to explore Cold War fears in an utterly different way, portraying a technocratic, almost entirely male world strongly suffused with good and evil.

Only 71 minutes long but with a deceptive richness that makes it as satisfying as many lengthier features, it’s more overtly noir than Panic (insofar as the term means much at all).

Indeed, The Hitch-Hiker opens in textbook fashion. We see the base of a car in darkness, the camera pans from the front wheel back to the door; a man’s shoes appear, a woman screams, a shot rings out, her purse falls to the ground. Then there’s a flashlight, and the first face we see is a sheriff, before we quickly move on to another car stopping for the hitcher, another body…and still we haven’t seen the killer’s own face.

Even when he (the now-little-known William Talman, later a TV detective-story and western star) hijacks a car driven by the two good guys who will share most of the screen time with him (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), the murderer’s face remains at first in shadow and is only revealed in artificially bright light when he finally speaks his name.

This is simple, direct film-making — there’s absolutely no tricksiness in The Hitch-Hiker. It is fairly closely based on a murderous rampage that had taken place a few years earlier, right down to the baddie’s half-paralysed eyelid: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours…” says the opening intertitle. The narrative is lean and focused, the photography is unfussy and nearly always concentrated on the three men (it might have been even stronger without the short scenes featuring the police on their trail).

Talman has something of the flavour of Sierra Madre Bogart, a little of the animalistic rage of Panic ‘s Palance toward the end; the O’Brien and Lovejoy characters are of course less melodramatic but they are clearly distinguished from one another, O’Brien the more hot-headed of the two, and their relationship undergoes some subtle shifts through the film.

Even more than their fine performances, though, it’s Lupino’s pared-down style which brings out so well the movie’s two big themes as she follows the trio through Mexico: technology, and evil.

Objects, metal objects, are critically important throughout. The gun is the only thing that gives Talman power, and we are always hyper-aware of its location; there is little actual violence in the movie but the threat of it is constant, notably in an episode where Talman tauntingly forces one of the men to hold a tin can for him to shoot.

Likewise, the car is the only thing that gives O’Brien and Lovejoy value to Talman. So there is much painstaking detail concerning the procedure for climbing out at gunpoint, or involving the radio that adds to the tension with updates on the manhunt for Talman, and so on.

And the car is also used (as so often) as a metaphor for the story itself, trundling into darkness/doom or — at one vivid moment — hurtling toward us like the out-of-control situation. Toward the end there is even a helicopter, surely one of the first in a crime movie, providing deliverance from above.

If that is something of a deus ex machina there is also plenty of more integral deus. The helicopter may be the agent of salvation but is an earlier plane that O’Brien seems to directly address as the deity: “Please God, hear me,” he says.

Even more obviously, there’s a scene in a Mexican shop where Lovejoy tells a little girl to “go with God” before snapping at Talman: “You wouldn’t understand.” And the priest who greets the three men outside the shop, while seemingly completely irrelevant to the plot, would be such an odd addition to a movie where nothing is wasted that we have to assume his presence is intentional.

What he perhaps represents — the implicit Godly rightness of the normal world from which Talman has snatched O’Brien and Lovejoy — is almost entirely confirmed by the way the hitch-hiker is portrayed. Much like Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher 30-odd years later (a movie which otherwise has little in common with this), Talman has strong hints of the supernatural about him: his hair blows out like a devil’s horns, his face takes on a leering demonic aspect. He criticises his prisoners at one point for “thinking about each other” rather than being selfish; for Christian behaviour, in other words.

One can wonder if The Hitch-Hiker is a parable of sin and its wages. The men had originally planned an innocent trip to mountains in Arizona near their home, then were tempted to Mexico by memories of a long-ago girl; later, that they are maybe not so very different from Talman underneath is suggested when he forces one of them to swap clothes with him.

If so, it’s a curious choice for Lupino, but then much about it is curious in the context of her work: most conspicuously, while she’s known for covering “women’s issues” in movies like The Bigamist,here there’s hardly a female role in the entire film (we don’t even see the men’s wives). Perhaps she found it an interesting exercise; perhaps she is indeed making a point about the relationship of men, specifically, to technology, power, and badness.

Either way, the absence of women actually frees the men from macho cinematic conventions, and not only lets their individual performances shine, but also allows Lupino to deliver non-stop suspense as both their dire situation and their complex three-way relationships develop.

Trivia postscript: both movies conclude at docks. In Panic, of course, the killer first arrives by water; in Hitch-Hiker, up to its ending set entirely in the driest of deserts, the killer is trying to escape that way.

Both these movies are available on Amazon Prime Video, with generally good transfer quality despite a few poor patches in each.

Originally published at https://www.quora.com.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.

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