Elia Kazan was on top of the world.
And yet, standing on the Galveston waterfront, he realized something was missing. He still felt like the errand boy in the Group Theater whom everyone -- from Stella Adler to Lee Strasberg -- referred to as "Gadge" for his utilitarian, "fix-it" ways as opposed to his artistic acumen. Even after breaking free from the constraints of the Group and establishing his stage and screen success, Kazan felt cornered again. The Hollywood system of shooting movies on a studio lot felt as restrictive as the stage's proscenium. He hated the idea of having to shoot the screenwriter's script almost verbatim, without any of his own input. And, in the final blow, he cringed when he was forced out of the process while the composer overloaded the music score with a sappy, string-driven orchestra and the producer edited the film to his own satisfaction.
But Kazan had gotten a taste of shooting on location with the 1947 crime drama Boomerang, and wanted more.
After he finished 1949's racial melodrama Pinky, he said goodbye to Molly, who by now was used to his wanderlust, and hitchhiked around the South, winding up at the Galveston harbor. Sea gulls soared and squawked overhead, flying unrepentantly, wherever they pleased. Fishing boats, firm in their direction, floated past in the water at their own leisurely pace, pungent with the smell of their cargo. Kazan took another whiff of that salt air rushing past him and said to himself, "This can't go on a sound stage; what am I doing? This is out of doors, this is what movies are." He'd make a movie where the location would be another character in the story, where you hear the music, smell and feel the air, taste the food. But where? What city could fulfill such a promise?
Gadge knew the answer. He'd go to New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS HAS LONG BEEN a port for sailors of mischief, a place where you can find yourself just as easily as you can lose yourself. Artists including playwright Tennessee Williams hit their artistic stride here, but few realize that the man who best adapted Tennessee's work -- Elia Kazan -- enjoyed a similar artistic renaissance. Kazan's little declaration of independence resulted in the 1950 film noir thriller Panic in the Streets, which became the first film shot entirely on location in New Orleans to win an Academy Award, for Best Writing (Motion Picture Story). The movie also has finally been released on DVD; last month, Fox Home Entertainment released Panic (along with Laura and Call Northside 777) in a belated attempt to showcase its film noir vault. The New Orleans Film Festival will screen the film Tuesday at the CAC.
Panic in the Streets, which follows a U.S. health inspector's battle to prevent a plague from spreading beyond the city, represented a magnificent bargain for the director and New Orleans. The city rolled out the red carpet for Kazan. He responded by hiring scores of locals to fill myriad roles, both large and small, in his persistent search for realism. Along the way, Kazan finally began developing a more visual and aural technique as a filmmaker after studying John Ford and Orson Welles. It was Ford who told Kazan to let the atmosphere affect his storytelling. "Get it out of your set," Ford said. "It will inspire you. Look at it."
The film also marked the first time Kazan (who died in 2003 at the age of 94) played any kind of role in the writing process, collaborating with screenwriter Richard Murphy. Kazan also seized the opportunity to incorporate the movie's music more organically instead of just from the more traditional studio orchestra, which was provided by multiple Oscar winner Alfred Newman. And while it marked the screen debut of Jack Palance and featured a young Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes and Zero Mostel, it was also the first film in which Kazan consciously avoided using big-name actors. He didn't need them.
"New Orleans would be my true star," Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Kazan: A Life, "that wonderful city where you can smell the river, the coffee, and the Creole cooking everywhere you go."
New Orleans is everywhere in Panic in the Streets. Jazz and blues music filters in from bars, jukeboxes and radios. Coroners discuss women and lunch options while examining a corpse. A dock worker munches on a po-boy while receiving a vaccination shot. An ethnically diverse group of immigrants and other workers struggles to make ends meet on the waterfront of the French Quarter. Small-time hoods scurry around for scraps like rats under the nose of law enforcement. And a skeptical City Hall and police force are forced to listen to the advice of an outsider.
"I wanted to exploit the environment," Kazan told movie producer and interviewer Jeff Young in the 1999 book, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. "[New Orleans is] so terrific and colorful. I wanted boats, steam engines, warehouses, jazz joints -- all of New Orleans -- in that picture.
"That was the first picture I truly enjoyed making in the sense that I was in control ... ."
It would not be a stretch to suggest that, without having learned this vital filmmaking style, Kazan would not have won a second Academy Award for his 1954 masterpiece, On the Waterfront. New Orleans emboldened Elia Kazan, and he responded with the most honest portrayal of the city in cinema history.
WHILE KAZAN WAS CONTEMPLATING this turning point in his career in 1950, he learned of a script being kicked around up in New York about efforts to keep a plague from erupting in a major city. He decided to do the project, working with screenwriter Murphy, who'd written the script for Boomerang. After getting complete control from Twentieth Century Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck, and recruiting Widmark to play the lead, Kazan started getting excited and plotted his strategy.
"I'd make a 'silent,'" Kazan wrote in his autobiography, "a film that a deaf man could follow, make it with people or with 'my own' actors, who looked like people."
Panic in the Streets came from a pair of pulp-fiction stories from the husband-and-wife writing team of Edward and Edna Anhalt: "Quarantine" and "Some Like 'em Cold," which were later adapted by Daniel Fuchs. The working title for the film was Outbreak, which Kazan probably preferred after hearing Fox's more sensational version. "It suggested that they were nervous about the popular appeal of the film," he wrote. The story concerns U.S. health inspector Clinton Reed (Widmark) who learns of a murdered corpse carrying a form of pneumonic plague -- a distant cousin of the bubonic plague -- after an illegal immigrant named Kochak arrives in New Orleans off a ship and is killed following a poker game with a bunch of hoodlums that included his cousin Poldi (Edd "Guy" Thomajan). The gang's leader, Blackie (Palance), suspects the fever-struck immigrant of cheating, and after Poldi and Blackie's flunky Fitch (Mostel) give chase, Blackie shoots Kochak and orders the body dumped on the waterfront.
Reed examines the body and realizes what the virus can do. He warns city officials of the potential for a plague that could spread throughout the country -- maybe even the world. The only way to prevent the plague, he argues, is by finding the killers within 48 hours -- a classic film noir technique of "setting the clock." The mayor agrees and assigns the case to skeptical NOPD Capt. Warren (Paul Douglas), and the chase is on. From there, Reed spends his time trying to convince Warren of the magnitude of the situation while Blackie, suspecting that Kochak might have brought some valuable loot into the city, tries to track down Poldi, whom he believes has the stash.
The cat-and-mouse game is played out in the French Quarter and on the waterfront, with Reed and Warren chasing Blackie and Blackie chasing Poldi and staying one step ahead of the law. The trail ends in a coffee warehouse on the docks, as Blackie desperately attempts to crawl up a rope tied to a ship. He falls into the river while trying to get around the rat guard.
KAZAN INSISTED THAT THE film is a lighthearted affair -- "I always thought Panic was a bizarre sort of comedy," he told Jeff Young. In fact, film critics, magazines and Internet sites vary on just exactly what genre it is. Despite its film noir label, it also has been described as a thriller and an action-adventure, a "plague" film and a melodrama, with light dashes of the social progressivism that informed so much of Kazan's work. Also in keeping with Kazan's previous films, there is indeed a message about how the need to serve a greater good outweighs the importance of an individual (which he later explored in 1960's Wild River, also set in the South).
The film noir elements come from the movie's use of post-war German Expressionist and Italian Neo-Realist techniques. Kazan admired how the Expressionists used chiaroscuro lighting to heighten emotion, and he related to the Neo-Realists' verite portrayals of those living on the margin of society. Panic offered him a chance to explore these styles further by experimenting with cinematography and casting real people. After working with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood -- Dorothy McGuire, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck and Ethel Barrymore -- Kazan wanted to go in the opposite direction. To suit the needs of this picture and his new approach, he recruited not only lesser stars, but also some of his rougher cronies from the New York stage scene, and on top of that several New Orleanians with varied levels of acting experience.
In Widmark, whom he'd directed onstage, he had a man known more as the film noir heavy who in his screen debut pushed a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs in 1947's Kiss of Death. (Widmark was, Kazan told Young, "as nice a guy as there was in the world.") In Bel Geddes, he had an attractive but not glamorous leading lady. In the lantern-jawed Palance, a former boxer who was Marlon Brando's understudy in Streetcar, he had an athlete with a feral quality and a chiseled face. And in Mostel, a veteran of the New York City nightclub circuit and the stage, he had a chubby, balding clown.
He cast smaller parts accordingly, including Guy Thomajan, a gritty Armenian who was Kazan's longtime dialogue coach up in New York, as Poldi. But a vast majority of the cast came from New Orleans, the result of casting calls and Kazan's eagle eye.
"It's about time I got some of my own people on film who are actors or non-actors, but who have human faces," he told Young. "I've nothing against actors. I really like them a lot, but you know so many of them had a soft, velvety look on screen. It's not quite human. It's not in trouble, it's not committed, it's not in danger, it's not frantic, it's got no tears, it hasn't got a hard-on, it's just a walking mask."
While shooting an early scene with the fictional mayor, city officials and the police captain, Kazan noticed Arthur Tong, a Chinese transplant to New Orleans, running an errand across the hall. At the time, Tong was a photographer for the New Orleans Recreation Department and the Vieux Carré Courier.
"I'd made a little comment in the hall," said Tong, a longtime doorman at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré who died in 2004, in a 2002 interview, "and [Kazan] comes over to see what the commotion was, and the first thing he says to me is, 'Do you want to be in a movie?' I guess he liked the look of my face."
Tong initially was coy, but ultimately agreed to appear in a key scene in which Dr. Reed and Capt. Warren track the plague to a ship called the Nile Queen out in the Gulf of Mexico. Tong played a cabin boy who provides valuable information to the pair. He remembered four grueling days in December 1949 of waking up at 4 a.m. to take a Greyhound bus out to Gulfport, Miss., to shoot the scene on the ship. The first three days, everything they tried to shoot was clouded by a massive morning fog. Finally, the fog lifted on the fourth day, and Kazan used everything from that shoot because it was the only day where every shot matched up. "That's how realistic he was about making films," Tong said.
Kazan also held auditions for other minor parts by taking out an ad in the newspaper. Wilson C. Bourg Jr., whose father owned a lumberyard in Faubourg Marigny and who had done some acting at Le Petit, answered the ad and got a part after an audition.
"I played a shady character," the 85-year-old Bourg says of Charlie, a sailor who after an interrogation by Dr. Reed in his tugboat leads Reed to the Nile Queen. The scene starts out dramatically, with Charlie's girlfriend (Lenka Peterson), believing he might have the plague, begging Charlie to give Reed information she knows will trace the immigrant's journey to New Orleans. Then, just as Reed provides a vaccination shot, Charlie chomps down on a po-boy.
Kazan outfitted Bourg with a knitted cap and a black turtleneck, then sized up Bourg's girth. "'Goddamn, you're too big,'" he recalls Kazan saying. "He told me to lose 15 pounds in two weeks. I said, 'Yes, sir, Mr. Kazan.' I wanted to be in that movie. So I lost the weight.
"We did one take," Bourg continues. "At one point, Kazan said to someone, 'Look, go get him a sandwich,' so they went and got me a po-boy from the French Market. So he says, 'When he gives you the shot, take a bite out of the sandwich.' Later on, he told me if I came out to Hollywood I could make a living, but I was married and had two kids, and was too involved in the business with my father."
WHEN ELIA KAZAN SAYS that Panic in the Streets was the first film that he truly enjoyed making, it wasn't just because of his desire to become a better filmmaker. He had a blast while making the film, and it shows on screen. Despite the film's craftsmanship, Kazan insists he wanted to "wing it" while in New Orleans, and obviously was affected by the city's lifestyle. He knew of the city both from his work with Tennessee Williams and his acquaintance with legendary jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans native.
Kazan brought his cast, crew and family down to New Orleans for a four-month shoot in the fall of 1949 and winter of 1950. Mayor deLesseps S. "Chep" Morrison, who was in the early stages of a decade-long political feud with then-Gov. Earl Long, welcomed Kazan with open arms, offering the services of the police department through his liaison Al Theriot (for a fee, of course). Kazan, picking up on the quid pro quo atmosphere, cast several New Orleans cops (including Theriot) as extras in the film. Kazan felt like he had the run of the town, roaming the streets, frequenting the nightclubs and restaurants. Famed restaurateur Owen Brennan befriended him and rented out a house to Kazan near Brennan's Lakeview home. The rest of the crew stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel and often dined on ostrich eggs sent up from Brennan's.
"I ran free all over the city," Kazan recalled in his autobiography. "For a time I had the use of a tugboat and took my kids for a ride on the Mississippi. Sundays, some of my people would gather for brunch, after which we'd play horseshoes. Sometimes I'd box with one of my assistants, who put me in my place. ...
"I went wild," Kazan wrote. "There were all kinds of girls on our set, visitors and extras. It was a 'carny' atmosphere or like that around a second-class rock band on tour today. All this was a fantastic liberation for me. ... I got everything I wanted. In one sequence, for extras we emptied a whorehouse of its girls; that was a jolly day! ... After my family returned to New York to get the kids back to school, I bunked with a generous woman who'd recently given birth; when we made love, her milk was all over my chest. Living irregularly, I was in heaven."
Thomajan reflected what Kazan called the "hooligan friends" in his New York crowd: tough, masculine types who knew their way around a bottle and a woman. There is even a legend, never confirmed, that Thomajan once took such great offense to a perceived snub by Lee Strasberg -- Kazan's fellow co-founder of the Actors Studio and a rival -- that Thomajan beat the acting coach to a pulp in a New York restaurant.
"He was having a ball making that movie," recalls Thomajan, now in his 80s and living near Tallahassee, Fla. "Now, for the first time, he was learning how to move the camera. ... There was a certain amount of freedom you had in New Orleans. The cops left you alone, didn't both you. At night, we'd walk around in the French Quarter. There were all the whores, and all the jazz clubs were wide open. New Orleans had an ambience that you didn't have in New York City, even with Thelonius Monk and the clubs on 52nd Street. ... (Kazan) seemed more relaxed. Freedom is very important."
New Orleans displayed a hospitality that it had become famous for. Restaurateur Ella Brennan, Owen's sister, remembers being taken with Kazan after they met; often, the Brennans would frequent Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street after a night's work and would party with whomever they liked. Kazan joined the group. "I remember feeling very warmly toward him, liking him," Ella Brennan remembers. "He wasn't one of those standoffish people you'd meet. He'd sit down at night and talk and talk and talk. It was exciting for me because I was young at the time, and I enjoyed meeting them all and listening to them talk. I went down to see them shooting.
"At that time, New Orleans seemed to be a mecca for writers, artists, musicians," Brennan continues. "They all seemed to want to be here at this time. New Orleans wasn't as expensive as New York. It was so much fun and fascinating to be around that. We always liked to say, 'Live and let live.'"
The French Quarter had a strong ethnic population during that period, particularly along Decatur Street, where much of the film was set. He used the Athena Cafe, hiring Greek stage star Alex Minotis as the co-owner -- perhaps a nod to Kazan's Anatolian roots. He also cast an Irish dwarf as a newspaper hawker who part-times as snitch for Blackie. He made a hotel into a flophouse with burned-through mattresses. He was so struck by the composition of the city's morgue that he shot the scene using an unusual take: the camera follows the corpse being taken from the ambulance and then tracks the corpse being moved into another room (and past a custodian mopping the floor, played by Kazan himself).
The New York cast and crew that invaded New Orleans for the making of Panic in the Streets was greeted warmly by the locals, who appreciated being included in the making of the film. Yet there were still cultural differences. Kazan, who had been a member of the Communist Party from 1934-36 and would later stir a major controversy by naming names of party members to the House Un-American Activities Committee, was a social progressive whose films dealt with such themes as anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement) and racism (Pinky). So it must have been a bit of culture shock for the New Yorkers when they witnessed the city's segregation. Mayor Morrison was considered an important friend to African-American leaders at the time, but even Morrison, in order to hold onto public office, had to endorse segregation in his official pronouncements.
By most accounts, the cast and crew from New York tolerated this paradox of hospitality and racism, but there were still moments of subtle protest. Zero Mostel's son, Josh, recalls a story he says he heard either about or directly from his late father about the time spent in New Orleans.
"Zero was with a bunch of people from the crew somewhere in the city, and they had segregated water fountains there," remembers Josh, whose film acting credits include Jesus Christ Superstar and Matewan. "One was for 'whites only' and one was for 'colored only,' I guess is what they would have called it back then. Well, Zero went to the whites-only fountain and drank from it and started gagging and grimacing. He just retched and gagged about how awful the water was. And then he went to the other one and took a drink from it and he went, 'Ahhhhh,' made a big thing about how good the water was.
"It was his little way of being against segregation," Josh says.
WHILE KAZAN ADMITS TO BEING slightly disappointed about his approach to the music in Panic in the Streets, he nevertheless filled the movie with jazz and blues, so inspired by the music of Sidney Bechet and Louis Prima. He had the assistance of Alfred Newman, then Fox's studio composer and one of the most honored composers in film history. But Kazan didn't want the typical Fox soundtrack of the time, with its swells of string arrangements pushing a drama into melodrama.
Instead, Kazan, after wandering the streets of New Orleans at night, tried to incorporate the music more seamlessly. The opening shot is itself a rush of swaggering jazz as the camera rolls down Bourbon Street and past the nightclubs and restaurants of the day: Brennan's Vieux Carre, Sho'Bar, Moulin Rouge, Gunga Den, Flamingo Lounge, Prima's 500 Club, Stormy's Casino Royale, Rizzo's Restaurant. In the next shot, down a rain-soaked French Quarter street and up toward a building, the camera captures a black woman in a door frame belting out a blues song, with the ominous lyrics, "You may be good for nothin' and you ain't no good for me."
In another scene, perhaps to emphasize Reed's outsider status, his home's radio plays a dreamy big-band tune instead of the earthier, traditional-jazz sounds of New Orleans. The Billie Holiday tune "Fine and Mellow," can be heard in still another.
More music blares from a jukebox in a coffee shop as Dr. Reed and Capt. Warren argue, and again two scenes later from a radio as Reed seeks information at the old Greek Seaman's Mission on Decatur Street (where the 201 Restaurant now sits). Other selections are curious, if not totally New Orleans; gospel harmonies drift through a seedy bar on Decatur, while the standard "Shenandoah" is played on a harmonica as Reed visits the sailor Charlie's tugboat off the old Barracks Street Wharf (now called the Gov. Nicholls Street Wharf) on the Mississippi River.
"New Orleans was full of the music I love," Kazan wrote. "In my nocturnal wanderings, I got to meet a number of the jazz musicians, chief among them (clarinetist) Sidney Bechet, who was a master and a poet. I also met cruder artists; I enjoyed them too. After dark that city was full of pulsing sound. I'd walk down a street lined with 'joints' out of which jazz flooded into the soft night air.
"I tried to fill the sound track of that film with this music, but I didn't do as well as I should have," he continues. "... In New Orleans, on Panic in the Streets, I learned the importance of music in film, and I would never again leave my sound track to a producer and his musical director. Often it's as important as anything except the sequence of pictures that will tell the basic story."
UNTIL PANIC IN THE STREETS, Elia Kazan had done what any stage director might do with a movie, using mostly medium shots to capture a scene. But with so many scenes shot outside, he decided to "open up" the picture, using lots of long and wide-angle shots to take advantage of the scenery. For example, in the climactic chase scene, shot in and out of a coffee warehouse on the river, Kazan shows Blackie prodding Fitch along to keep up. In the exterior shots, they are shown more from a distance than up close. As Jeff Young notes in his book, Kazan would use a foreground character to provide perspective in a shot instead of a close-up.
"A simplification of that technique is putting an object in the foreground that will have some special meaning in the high point or the climax of a scene," Kazan explains. "As the scene develops, the actors approach that object and, thus, that particular place. It's the most natural way to direct some kinds of scenes."
To prepare for the shoot, Kazan didn't just study John Ford; he reunited with Joseph McDonald, Ford's cinematographer on the classic 1946 western My Darling Clementine as well as on Kazan's Pinky. Panic in the Streets' opening scene continues with a subtly masterful sequence that Kazan shot in a long take. Poldi aids Fitch in the pursuit of his own cousin. Blackie follows close behind in the dark New Orleans night, dashing across the train tracks near the waterfront. As film noir expert Alain Silver notes in the commentary for the DVD release (with fellow historian James Ursini), Kazan's use of long takes and choreographed movement combines with McDonald's exquisite lighting, as fog blurs the ominous night, for an eerie setting of the film's tone.
"Lighting a night scene this big in  was no simple feat," Silver observes. "And not only to light a night scene like this but ... basically to shoot an entire sequence in three takes was unbelievable."
Throughout the movie, Kazan keeps tossing in what Silver calls "bits of business," stylistic touches and throwaway moments that seem frivolous at first blush, but then add to the atmosphere of the movie. It's everywhere. At one point, you hear a woman identifying a different body at the morgue, for no apparent reason. At another, Kazan slows the action to a crawl when Widmark's character visits his wife for a domestic moment that wouldn't fit in the ordinary film noir. There didn't seem to be much reason for one of the scenes with Blackie and the Irish dwarf, Jeff Young notes, but it seemed fun to shoot.
"That's a hell of a good reason to shoot a scene in my book," Kazan replied. "At least in this kind of film."
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THESE types of techniques, Kazan says, allowed him to make pivotal films such as Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront. And yet, Panic is also a seeming aberration in Kazan's storied career. It is by far his least-serious work; he leaped right back into heavy melodrama with A Streetcar Named Desire and barely lightened up the rest of the way. As many critics point out, Panic was much more of a turning point than a symbol of consistent direction. Or as Adrian Danks, president of the Melbourne Cinematheque, so accurately assesses in a critique, the film's greatest strength may be the way it explores, and exploits, New Orleans. "We get less of a sense of the geographic exactitude of an incessantly rambling New Orleans than its physical and metaphysical aspects, and the lived experiences which characterise the city," Danks wrote. "Characters eat and music plays throughout the film. ... Kazan, like Welles in Touch of Evil (1958), attempts to provide a sense of encounter with the noise and music of a city; broken-up, diffused, and oddly juxtaposed in order to give a sense of cacophony, vibrancy and rhythm."
With Panic in the Streets, Elia Kazan took a cue from a city that lived freely and existed on its own terms. In many ways the city and the director are a lot alike. They both shun contemporary conventions and trends, to live outside of society, as rebels with a cause -- the freedom to do what they want to do, and be who they want to be.
"It was a fantastic liberation for me," Kazan says of the experience, "because I was such a dutiful boy before that. ... I finally rebelled. In this picture I broke out of it, and it saved me ... really."
What better way to chart the course for an artistic career? Kazan must have seen something in those defiant sea gulls down at the Galveston harbor, those boats firm in their course. With what was clearly his own artistic rebellion, Elia Kazan, unrepentant, moving forward at his own defiant pace, would never be the same.
A&E Editor David Lee Simmons writes about film for Gambit Weekly. He will discuss Panic in the Streets at the conclusion of Tuesday's screening at the Contemporary Arts Center.
The collection of Don Lee Keith, courtesy of Teresa Neaves, helped in the research of this story.