A film that could only have come about with the rise of the auteur style that boomed in the early 70s, The Panic In Needle Park is a harsh depiction of heroin addiction on the streets of New York, and is equal to other classics of the time such as The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy. In many ways an antidote to the blissful, dope-filled high of the previous decade, the title refers to life in a part of the city where addicts meet to rob, steal, score and get wasted. It’s here that an out-of-her-depth Helen (Kitty Winn) goes looking to forget the pain following an abortion, which she finds in drugs and with Bobby (Al Pacino), a small-time pusher who introduces her to a life of turning tricks. The film follows their attempts to stay in love amongst the squalor, but no one is above betrayal when heroin is the reason a day exists.
Director Jerry Schatzberg was a fashion and music photographer in the 60s, and he shoots the film in a loose, almost documentary style, long lenses picking out the details from a distance, letting his characters interact and evolve. Winn is excellent as the narrator and innocent eyes for the audience, but predictably it’s Pacino that takes top honours here, all nervous energy, lazy eyes and flash grin as he goes from one bad situation to the other. As the decades have passed and Pacino has slid into semi-retirement and virtual self-parody, it’s easy to forget just how damn brilliant he once was.
But the film is more than Pacino. It’s a further document of the collapse of the American dream through the death of flower power and into the disillusionment of Vietnam, and is one of the first truly gritty portrayals of drug abuse on film — the ritual of shooting up, from finding a suitable vein to the rush of the needle, is graphic. Equally graphic is the heartbreaking emotion shown during the collapse of the one good thing in Helen and Bobby’s life: their romance. This might be remembered as one of Pacino’s lesser works but 40 years after release its influence can be seen in everything from Trainspotting to Requiem for a Dream. Highly recommended.
The Panic in Needle Park is available on DVD now