Judge Tom Becker panics when he has to parallel park.
God help Bobby and Helen: They're in love in Needle Park.
In 1971, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn were young actors known primarily (if at all) for their stage work. Jerry Schatzberg was a photographer-turned-director with one other film under his belt, Puzzle of a Downfall Child. The three teamed up on The Panic in Needle Park, a documentary-like look at drug addicts in New York City. The film was well-reviewed, Winn received the Best Actress award at Cannes, and Pacino used the currency he built from his performance to snag his star-making role in The Godfather. Thirty-six years and countless drug-addiction films later, does The Panic in Needle Park still make an impression?
Facts of the Case
New York City, circa 1970. Bobby (Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon) and Helen (Kitty Winn, The Exorcist) meet and fall in love. He's a native New Yorker; she's from Indiana. He's streetwise, a small-time criminal who has done jail time and dabbled in "hard" drugs. She's not an innocent: She's been living with artist Marco (Raul Julia, Kiss of the Spider Woman), has been smoking a lot of pot with him, and has just had an abortion (illegal at the time; Marco called in a favor). Bobby and Helen move in together to Bobby's seedy rented room in Sherman Square, a small stretch of grass and benches on NYC's upper west side that the junkies who've made it their hangout refer to as Needle Park.
Despite their rough edges, Bobby and Helen are young enough to believe their love will conquer all obstacles. But Bobby's drug dabbling develops into a habit, and Helen soon follows.
It's never a good time to be an addict, but this is a particularly bad time. The cops have been cracking down on suppliers, and there's a "panic," a dearth of available drugs.
The Panic in Needle Park is a harrowingly realistic look at marginalized people. It's raw, gritty stuff, and it eschews the artsy touches and moralizing that so often crop up in films about addiction.
Based on a 1965 nonfiction novel by James Mills, who lived among the denizens of Needle Park and created Bobby and Helen as an amalgam of the addicts he had gotten to know, the film stays true to both the events and tone of the book. It doesn't show us the world through the addicts' eyes, but the addicts' world from the outside, through our own eyes. We might sympathize with Bobby and Helen because the movie is about them, but if we saw them in their milieu, we would step aside or cross the street to avoid them.
They are grubby people, living in a moment that is not fun or exciting, but that just…is. There is no realistic thought for tomorrow, it's just score, use, survive. Bobby and Helen will sometimes talk in future tenses—he wants to marry her, she wants to move to "the country"—but there is no forward movement, no steps toward making these ideas a reality. It's just "high" talk, junkie jabbering. Bobby goes to jail, and Helen becomes a hooker; when he gets out and discovers this, his first reaction is blind machismo, beating her and sending her scurrying into the bathroom to hide. ("I was going to marry you! I was going to marry a whore!") When he comes to accept what she is doing, he has no trouble taking her money, a perverse variation of the suburban two-income household where the husband controls the finances.
The bombastic outbursts that would mark—and, I believe, mar—later Pacino performances are not on display here. He is naturally cocky, a sexy, sawed-off street thug. Winn, with her pretty-plain looks and diminishing wholesomeness, matches him beat for beat. As the film progresses, we can see the toll in their faces, Pacino's growing more hollow-eyed and gaunt, Winn's puffy and blotchy. They are not junkie beauties like Kelly Lynch in Drugstore Cowboy, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream, or Angelina Jolie in Gia.
Although scripted by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, Panic feels more like a free-form, improvisational film. Aside from the occasional "quotable" line ("The best high is death!" which was also in the book), most of the dialogue is pretty mundane. It sounds the way people talk, not the way writers write, and the actors deliver it so naturally, it's sometimes hard to believe they are professionals. Schatzberg shot this on location in NYC. His background as a photographer is evident: each moment is framed in a shot, and each shot is framed as a portrait. The camera moves when it has to, when the actors are moving. While there is a definite narrative flow, the film is really a mosaic: Once Bobby and Helen get together, you could almost rearrange the scenes, and the movie would still work.
Panic gives us no special effects, speeded-up sex, moody ruminations, and/or chic parties. The audio is all dialogue and background noise. There is no music in the film, even over the credits. Schatzberg does not cue our moods; he simply lets the events play out. The many scenes of people shooting drugs are not sensationalized or romanticized, which make them more difficult to watch. In one early scene, before Helen is using and Bobby is hooked, Bobby manages to score some dope, which he delivers to a hotel room full of jonesing junkies. One man sits against a wall, moaning; so desperate was he to shoot something into his veins that he robbed an animal hospital and mainlined worm medicine. The addicts make small talk about the panic, how it's happening because it's an election year (though they don't know who's running for election); Bobby calls a grocery store to try to sell some coffee he's stolen, and he and Helen make some romantic chit chat. The visual over all this is a close up of a man's hands and arm, cooking up a shot, loading the needle, then shooting. Someone takes the needle out of his arm.
We know that this needle will be passed around and used again; in 1971, there were far fewer reasons not to share a needle. Knowing what we know now makes the scene, and the film, all the more devastating.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At 109 minutes, the film is a little long; 10 minutes could easily be cut. My vote would be the "going to the 'country'/shooting up on the ferry" scene, wherein Bobby and Helen take a couple of hours' vacation from Needle Park and make a feeble stab at starting a new life. The way this scene plays out is ultimately so unpleasant that you might lose any sympathy you had for the characters.
But my biggest problem with this release is not about the film, but the disc.
The picture and sound are adequate, but neither seems to have had too much work done. The fact that the picture is less than pristine could have to do with the age of the film and the fact that it was not a high-end project to begin with. The picture is clear, but with some grain and speckling. It didn't really bother me and kind of added to the gritty feel. The audio was a bigger problem. I noted instances of dropout, places where it was difficult to hear the dialogue over the background noise, and a few instances of overmodulation.
I have to wonder if Fox had this DVD sitting on a shelf for years and just decided to release it now. We get a single-layer flipper disc with a widescreen presentation on one side and full-frame on the other. The only extra is a trailer. Given that virtually all the principles are still alive, I cannot believe that no one was available for a commentary. I wouldn't expect a commentary from Pacino, but would have loved to have heard from Schatzberg, Didion, or Winn, who made just a handful of films before retiring in 1978.
The case lists the rating as PG. According to IMDb, when the screenplay was submitted to the MPAA for evaluation, it was deemed that the film would be rated X because of all the profanity. Apparently, changes were made in the script, and the film was released with an R. Then, a few cuts were made, and the film was re-rated PG. The version I'm writing about had a couple of F-bombs, a nasty C-word, some shots of Winn topless, a just-missed-the-bits scene of Pacino and some guys in a prison shower, lots of needles going into veins, and other upsetting and violent scenes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the least-restrictive rating. I think every middle school child in the country should sit through this movie as part of their health class or social studies curriculum. I just find it hard to believe that this version of this film carries the same rating as Antz and The Incredibles.
The Panic in Needle Park is a battering experience that has lost none of its power in the more than 30 years since its original release. It's the tarnished gold standard for films about addiction. Whatever reservations I have about the disc, I can't recommend the film enough. It's a long overdue DVD release.
The Panic in Needle Park is judged clean and free to go. Fox, on the other hand, is ordered to undergo a hair-follicle test. Maybe this will tell us if they were on drugs when they released this great movie with merely serviceable audio and picture and no substantial extra materials.
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