In 1971, Al Pacino had not cemented his path to film greatness, he had not yet played Michael Corleone in The Godfather and he certainly didn’t fulfill the expectations of what male movie stars were meant to look like. But as the drug addicted, petty thief Bobby, one can see clearly the talent that was about to be unleashed on the world of cinema. The Panic in Needle Park is a low-budget, at times doco-style film directed by Jerry Schatzberg with a screenplay written by Joan Didion and her husband, the late John Gregory Dunne and which tells the story of Bobby and Helen, a girl who hails from the mid-west and who begins the movie as a wholesome good girl only to end it with an $80 a day habit and the scars left behind from physical abuse and prostitution. Bobby and Helen fall in love almost instantly and theirs is a sweet, romantic and beautiful junky-love. But like all cases of junky-love, eventually the junk takes precedence over the love.
This movie was considered quite controversial in its day (it was actually banned from release in England) and in terms of drug movies it gives a pretty authentic depiction. The New York you see in this movie is light years away from the glitzy glossed-over uber town of Sex and the City, thanks in part to the colours and the hand-held type camera work. The street scenes have a documentary feel about them and although Pacino at times overdoes his role as Bobby (he’s a bit too method actor in parts) the portrayal of Helen by Kitty Winn is remarkable and so realistic. The film is gritty and dirty and sometimes really uncomfortable to watch, there are lots of super close-up shots of people injecting themselves, the people throughout look under-fed and unwashed, Pacino especially and all of them inhabit rooms and buildings that are dank and dingy. Needle Park is a small concrete triangle between Verdi Square and Sherman Square in New York, a stone’s throw from Broadway. The panic is the chaos that ensues amongst the community of junkies when supplies run low and start to dry up. Besides a few dodgy scenes involving cops and snitches and some lacklustre dialogue in part, this film does really well at telling a story that we’ve all seen played out before but which is rarely handled so delicately and realistically.
This is a link to a compilation of scenes from The Panic in Needle Park, set to a song by Giant Drag, aptly titled Drugs.
And this is a link to a scene in the film which be warned is slightly discomforting for people averse to needles.
This is a link to the original trailer for the movie which is exceptionally long!