Nursing Book Club

Panic in the Streets by Elia Kazan, Film Director

A deadly plague is the real villain of this 1950 noir thriller

I usually only review books for Working Nurse, but the editors recently suggested I review Panic in the Streets, a classic film noir directed by Elia Kazan, released by 20th Century Fox in 1950.

Richard Widmark plays the film’s hero, U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) physician Clinton Reed. When a coroner tells Reed that an unidentified homicide victim would have died within 12 hours of pneumonic plague, even without the two bullet holes in his chest, Reed sets out on a desperate search to discover the dead man’s identity and stop an epidemic.

Reed knows that whoever shot the dead man is at high risk of catching and transmitting the plague, so Reed has to find the killer before the disease has time to incubate. That means Reed, aided by a skeptical police captain, has only 48 hours before the plague starts to spread out of control.

I’m currently doing COVID-19 contact tracing, so I immediately started thinking, “Only 48 hours and no computers and no cell phones? How will they ever do it?”

Medical Mystery

The film is set in mid-century New Orleans, but not the photogenic, fun New Orleans familiar to tourists of today. This city is defined by the docks, the dockworkers and the union hall where they crowd close together, looking for jobs on the waterfront.

Many are reluctant to talk to Reed, fearing they’ll get in trouble. Others lie to him. Reed also has to be careful about how much he tells people, lest he start a panic that will make containing the plague impossible.

Nursing Education

Reed’s responsibility is to stop the plague in its tracks using the only tools he has available to him: the power to quarantine and vaccinate. Over and over, we hear him tell those who are suspected of being in contact with the dead man, “Roll up your sleeves.” The unspoken rest of the statement is “… or you’re dead.”

The Nurse With No Name

There are only two important women in the film. One is Reed’s beautiful and supportive wife, played by a young Barbara Bel Geddes, who some will remember from the ‘80s TV show “Dallas.” She’s her husband’s support in the classic 1950s style, trying to help by feeding him and encouraging him to get more sleep. At one point, Reed has to hide his contaminated uniform in the garage so that his dutiful wife won’t try to launder it herself.

The second significant female character, and my favorite, is the community  health nurse treating the dead man’s already-symptomatic cousin. Clad in full period nursing gear, complete with white shoes and cap, the nurse quickly examines the cousin and realizes he is deathly ill.

She argues with a physician who has been called to the sick man’s room, declaring in no uncertain terms that the man is dying and an ambulance should be called. The smooth-talking doctor, smoking a cigar and wearing street clothes, dismisses her as alarmist, instead wanting the patient transferred to a private clinic that the doctor himself operates.

Hiring Now

This unnamed nurse character — whose actress isn’t even credited onscreen — is a great example of nurses being at the forefront with critical thinking while doctors dismiss their assessments. Her argument with the doctor also closely parallels the reactions the movie’s hero gets from city officials when he tries to warn them of the plague early in the film.

Same Problems Today

Panic In the Streets is 96 minutes of action. It’s fun to watch for the breaches in infectious disease control practices, which might get someone fired today. For example, in an early scene, the coroner works in gloves and street clothes while members of the press stand around in the room, watching without any PPE at all!

Throughout the story, we get a clear idea of the problems that the USPHS has faced over the years: poor pay, no glamour, little respect, political interference and difficulty with the press. While the tools have improved, the same problems still exist, as you can clearly see from the response to stay-at-home orders and other efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

If you are still at home, looking for something beside “Tiger King” to watch, you can rent or buy this movie on Amazon Prime, iTunes or YouTube. (It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.)

Panic in the Streets directed by Elia Kazan (20th Century Fox, 1950)


Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.


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