Panic in the Streets, a Film Noir About … Contact Tracing

My one-sentence elevator pitch for the 1950 film Panic in the Streets” goes something like this: Anthony Fauci … the movie. (“Ah,” some of you out there are thinking, “so this is a sexy film.”) It’s a half-joking but still mainly serious description; the movie has nothing to do with Fauci himself and none of the characters particularly resemble him, but it accomplishes something Fauci himself has been doing quite well these past few months—it takes what may seem like the boring, unromantic aspects of epidemiology and makes you interested in them. 

Other pandemic films hit you with the anxiety and horror of a pandemic in full swing; Panic in the Streets takes you on a journey of a health professional trying to head off an epidemic before it begins. This is, I kid you not, a film noir about contact tracing. Contact tracing! It’s a movie that, if I didn’t know otherwise, I would think just had to have been written by an epidemiologist because, and I know I repeat myself, IT’S A FILM NOIR ABOUT CONTACT TRACING. I’m picturing an epidemiologist at some fancy-schmancy 1940s Hollywood party pitching to some producer: “I mean hardboiled detectives are cool, but get a load of what I do.” The thing is, the imaginary epidemiologist I’ve conjured up for this joke is right; epidemiology is kind of interesting and very important, and, more significantly for this article, it works shockingly well as the subject of a film noir.

I’m writing about Panic in the Streets not just because of our current pandemic but also because the film celebrated the 70th anniversary of its release on Friday. Despite being made at a time when America lost its mind and decided anything could be put in Jello, the world in the film would be remarkably familiar to modern viewers. Our clothes are different and our social attitudes have progressed, but Panic in the Streets succeeds in the area that any film hoping to avoid the dustbin of datedness must: It captures unchanging themes of human nature. 

The movie follows Lieutenant Commander Clint Reed, a commissioned corps officer of the U.S. Public Health Service, who is called into the morgue in New Orleans where he’s stationed, to examine an unidentified murder victim whose body, in addition to having a few bullet holes, shows signs of a rare illness. Reed, played by Richard Widmark, identifies the illness as pneumonic plague and has to work with the police captain to solve the dead man’s murder to figure out who was exposed to the plague. While the film contains some scientific inaccuracies—a sailor who smuggled the sick man into the country is offered “anti-plague serum,” which, well, doesn’t exist—the tools and processes Reed uses are largely real and still used today—things like contact tracing, social distancing, and quarantines. Of greater interest, however, is how the public responds to Reed in his quest to save them from the potential-epidemic. 

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