At this late night card game in New Orleans, there's only one outcome Blackie (Jack Palance) wants, and that is to get his hands on the cash in one of the other players' pocket, but his plans hit a snag when the obviously sick man tries to leave, feeling too ill to carry on. Assisted by his weaselly associate Fitch (Zero Mostel) he follows the man stumbling out of the room to a patch of wasteground where he guns him down, then helps himself to the money. As a crime, it's a dire one, but there are complications: the dead man was carrying pneumonic plague.
This well-thought of thriller was one of the first to make the name of its director Elia Kazan thanks to its efficiency with a straight to the point style and documentary approach for its extensive location shooting. It was one of the movies that marked the nineteen-fifties Hollywood dabbling in making their stories as realistic as the possibly could, so the previous extensive shooting on soundstages was eschewed by placing the cast in the most convincing places available. Not every movie followed its lead, but for the thriller genre it was the best way of rendering its plotting believable.
As if this was really happening, and here with a storyline revolving around the possibility that American citizens could potentially be struck down in great numbers by the plague that was all to the service of truth. The truth was very important here, as the characters wrestle with their consciences about how much they should be giving away, whether it's the authorities to the public or vice versa. Our hero was Dr Clint Reed, played by Richard Widmark in one of the roles which helped to prevent him being typecast as the giggling killer from Kiss of Death as here he was on the side of the good guys.
It's Clint who identifies the disease in the recovered corpse, and being a public health representative he makes it his business to nip any spread of the condition in the bud, but it wouldn't be much of a tale if he didn't hit a few obstacles in the process. One of these is that he cannot allow the gravity of the situation to get beyond those who really need to know, and that includes irascible Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) who he strikes up an early buddy movie rapport with even if they don't see eye to eye. The "panic" of the title is the last thing either of them want to happen, and the tension arises from whether it will bubble up and dominate the population.
More traditional thriller conventions were employed for the plot with Blackie and Fitch, who get to know that there is someone tracking down an associate of theirs and decide that it's down to him having a fortune stashed away rather than because he has been infected by the man Blackie killed. You can see why Palance made such an impact in this, his debut, starting a career of playing charismatic bad guys, with his striking features and demeanour of violence, and he almost steals the whole picture. Mostel meanwhile illustrated that placing a comedian in a straight role can pay dividends, as he made a convincing lowlife, but if there was a flaw, it was the distraction away from the chase and the insistence on interrupting the proceedings to cut back to Clint's home life with wife Barbara Bel Geddes, which gives us some idea of what's at stake should the plague take hold, but saps the suspense otherwise. The final pursuit through the docks was a fine finale, however. Music by Alfred Newman.