Pin It

Street Savvy 

Elia Kazan's 1950 film Panic in the Streets -- made one year before A Streetcar Named Desire -- was a turning point in the legendary director's career.

When Elia Kazan died Sept. 28 at the age of 94, he was widely hailed, as The New York Times' Mervyn Rothstein put it, as "the best director of American actors in stage and screen history." Indeed, it was Kazan who discovered and nurtured the talents of such legends as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty and James Dean. Similarly, no other director has meant more to New Orleans than Elia Kazan. Not only did he direct the greatest of Tennessee Williams' plays, he also brought them to the big screen -- most notably, the iconic A Streetcar Named Desire.

Kazan also deserves credit for directing one of the truly great early New Orleans movies, 1950's Panic in the Streets -- made just one year before the screen version of Streetcar. Together, they represent two of the most important films set and/or shot in New Orleans. But while A Streetcar Named Desire's legacy is both theatrically and cinematically firmly in place, Panic in the Streets isn't quite as appreciated.

One could make the argument that Panic in the Streets meant more to Kazan as a film director than did Streetcar, because it represented many "firsts" for him. It was the first film he truly enjoyed making, mainly because it was the first time he decided to develop his technical skills as a filmmaker -- partly by taking John Ford's advice and incorporate atmosphere into his storytelling, and partly by becoming more involved in the screenwriting process. The result was an Academy Award for Edna and Edward Anhalt for Best Writing (Motion Picture Story).

The idea of doing a movie here came to Kazan while hitchhiking around the country. He wound up in Galveston, Texas, and was overwhelmed by the smell of salt and fish wafting in the Gulf breeze. He marveled at the sights and sounds of the waterfront, and he thought to himself, "There's no wind on a stage." Until this point, he'd never made a film that truly captured the atmosphere of his setting -- mainly because most of the filming was done in a studio. (Imagine On the Waterfront without Panic having been made first.)

"I'd make a 'silent,' a film that a deaf man could follow, make it with people or with 'my own' actors, who looked like people," Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life. "New Orleans would be my true star, that wonderful city where you can smell the river, the coffee, and the Creole cooking everywhere you go."

The film features Richard Widmark as U.S. health inspector Clinton Reed, who discovers that a dead immigrant has passed along a form of pneumonic plague to small-time gangster Blackie (Jack Palance, in his screen debut) and his flunkies (Zero Mostel and Edd "Guy" Thomajan). Reed must find the hoodlums and contain them before they pass the plague along to the general populace.

No longer trapped on a studio lot or soundstage, and emboldened by New Orleans' carefree atmosphere, Kazan felt free to "wing it." He did that and then some, buddying up to the local police (casting several cops and other locals in the film) as well as Owen and Ella Brennan, who sent up ostrich eggs to his room at the Roosevelt Hotel (now the Fairmont) when he wasn't staying with his family at a rented house out in Lakeview.

"I ran free all over the city," Kazan wrote. "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 continued. "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! ... Living irregularly, I was in heaven."

Ella Brennan, sister to the late Owen Brennan, 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."

With Panic in the Streets, Kazan drew from the spirit that percolated throughout New Orleans and returned the favor with a film whose finger was on the pulse of the city in a way that few films ever achieved. In the book, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films, Kazan told interviewer Jeff Young, "(Making Panic in the Streets) was a fantastic liberation for me, because I was such a dutiful boy before that."

click to enlarge "New Orleans would be my true star," Elia Kazan - wrote of the making of Panic in the Streets.
  • "New Orleans would be my true star," Elia Kazan wrote of the making of Panic in the Streets.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Pin It
Submit an event Jump to date

Latest in News

More by David Lee Simmons

  • Man on Wire (Film)

    • Jan 19, 2009
  • Good Neighbors

    Gambit Weekly's Fall Restaurant Guide by Neighborhood
    • Oct 7, 2008
  • Best of New Orleans 2008

    • Aug 26, 2008
  • More »

Spotlight Events

  • Bayou Country Superfest @ Mercedes-Benz Superdome
    1500 Poydras St.

    • May 25-27

© 2018 Gambit
Powered by Foundation