Panic in Needle Park, The (1971)

“I’m not hooked — I’m just chippin’.”

Synopsis:
A heroin addict (Al Pacino) introduces his new girlfriend (Kitty Winn) to his lifestyle, and she’s soon addicted herself.

Genres:

Review:
Director Jerry Schatzberg’s follow-up to his disappointing debut film Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) was this cinéma vérité look — sans any musical score — at heroin use in New York City’s “Needle Park”. One of the first films to directly and graphically show needles being injected into users’ arms, Panic… is NOT for the faint-of-heart: it’s the type of film that makes drug use seem so utterly unappealing (users loll around in listless states of wastedness) that it’s slightly difficult to understand why even a lost waif like Winn would choose to enter into this world. (Of course, we’re made to believe that it’s Pacino’s charisma — and her desperate need for love and acceptance — that propels her, but still…). Regardless, Schatzberg should be commended for his no-holds-barred approach to this milieu — including an effective, oft-imitated (viz: 2007’s American Gangster), entirely silent scene in which Pacino witnesses a small team of workers preparing the drug for sale. At the time of the film’s release, this kind of thing must have been utterly revelatory for audiences.

Panic… is also remembered today for Al Pacino’s standout performance — his first leading role on-screen, and the catalyst for his casting the following year in Coppola’s The Godfather. He’s a bundle of hopped-up energy here, literally sweeping Winn off her feet in the opening scenes (as she’s recovering from an illegal abortion), and somehow charismatic enough to convince Winn that his cadre of drug-injecting losers is a worthy gang to hang with. Inevitably, of course, Winn (whose career infamously never really went anywhere after her auspicious debut here; she chose family life instead) is caught up in the insanity of addiction herself — and, as expected, things simply go downhill from there. So many films (both fiction and documentary) about the pathetic lives of drug users have been released since Panic… that today’s viewers will likely not be shocked by what they’re seeing on-screen — but it remains a worthy early entry in the genre, one film fanatics should expose themselves to once (and then can feel free to leave behind forever, as I will).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Pacino as Bobby
  • Kitty Winn as Helen (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • A gruesomely graphic, no-holds-barred depiction of drug addiction

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance as one of the first films to show drug abuse in its shoddy reality — and for Pacino’s performance.

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One Response to “Panic in Needle Park, The (1971)”

  1. A once-and-done deal. It certainly says everything it has to say (effectively) the first time out.

    Haven’t seen this since its release. It pulls no punches. It’s very thorough. Screenwriters Joan Didion and Dominick Dunne were no strangers to this territory (medication and crime, respectively). Winn is just as impressive as Pacino – perhaps more; she has the tougher role (her career met demotion when she soon after appeared in ‘The Exorcist’, exiting afterwards).

    The film is helped (as it were) immensely thanks to the crisp, natural filming by DP Adam Holender (who, interestingly, also filmed ‘Midnight Cowboy’; his debut). Strangely, he did not do a lot of note.

    Sidebar: Dunne, a close friend of ‘Boys in the Band’ author Mart Crowley, tried to talk Crowley out of letting his landmark play surface. Eventually, he ended up on the producing end of the film version of the play. Perhaps Dunne saw the light – and saw how other societal issues should be faced head-on. Hence, his involvement here (?).

    This is not a movie that one will like. It has no characters in it who are easy to like at all. (The whole thing with the dog says it all for me.) But it’s a courageous film, so it needs to be seen once for its unflinching nature.

    Two noteworthy, contemporary equivalents: ‘Down to the Bone’ (2004) and ‘Candy’ (2006).

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