“The Panic in Needle Park” is raw unnerved New York filmmaking from the 1970’s. Its locations reek with the underbelly of city life, the subways, dirty streets, and the infamous Sherman Park aka Needle Park. Al Pacino in his first leading role is on fire, gum chewing, chain-smoking and wired. This is Pacino, pre-Godfather, unadulterated and hungry.
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, a well-known photographer, who spent the early part of his career taking portraits of Bob Dylan, including the cover of his “Blonde on Blonde” album, Faye Dunaway, The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Schatzberg would go on to direct other downbeat works like rarely seen “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” and “Scarecrow.”
“Panic” opened in 1971 and died a quick death at the box office. It remained mysteriously missing from the world of video for 36 years until finally released on DVD in 2007. The 1970’s was a time when filmmakers made statements, provoked and were passionate about what they did. You could make a small art film and not worry about the commercial viability, at least not completely.
The film is a disturbingly beautiful piece of work. An uncompromising bleak vision as filmed by Schatzberg whose use of improvisation and cinema verite style filmmaking puts you right there on the grimy streets with the protagonists. Unlike most drug themed films from this period “Panic” does not cater to the counter-cultures glorification of drug use, part of the reason it did not do well at the box office, as portrayed in such films as “The Trip”, “Psych Out”, “Wild in the Streets”, “Easy Rider” and “Head.” That said, the day after “Panic” opened in New York City another hard-core film about drug addicts opened also, this time the location is on the west coast, the little known “Dusty and Sweets McGee.”
Not a movie for the squeamish, the subject matter is presented realistically and harshly. Needles are shown in close up going under the skin, long harrowing scenes of overdoses, and dirty living conditions in shoddy apartments with filthy clothes and cheap food, addicts hanging out in the concrete jungle known as Needle Park. Schatzberg’s vision conveys no glamour in being an addict. This is not Wyatt and Billy looking for America. It is not an easy movie to sit through and certainly not a Friday night date movie.
Within this subterranean setting, a love story is played out between Bobby (Al Pacino) a small time streetwise criminal, hustler and drug addict and Helen (Kitty Winn), a girl, originally from the mid-west, who recently split with her boyfriend/artist Marco (Raoul Julia), after aborting their baby. They meet when Bobby comes up to Marco’s apartment to sell him some dope and notices Helen who is not feeling well. Helen ends up in the hospital from complications of the abortion. While there, Bobby visits her and soon after she is released, she moves in with him.
Charismatic, cocky and confident, Bobby feels he can do anything yet he lacks any vision beyond the petty crime, and the buying and selling of drugs his life revolves around. Trying to impress Helen, he steals a portable television from the back of a van. Soon after they moved in together, Helen like Bobby, starts chipping. The heroin habit gets worst and their life together quickly spirals downward living for the next connection. While Bobby is in and out of jail, Helen succumbs to prostitution as a way to support her increasingly expensive heroin habit. She also sleeps with Hank, Bobby’s brother and a small time crook. After Bobby’s release from jail, he discovers Helen has been selling herself on the streets. In a fit of rage, he screams out, “I was going to marry a whore!” Cowering in a corner of the bathroom, Helen pleads with Bobby not to hit her. As he moves toward the bathroom, however, he doesn’t hit her; instead, he hugs her. Together, they talk, making plans about getting married, moving to the country, but it’s only just talk, the only road they are on is going nowhere.
The “Panic” in the title refers to a police crackdown on drug selling and usage in the park. Heroin becomes scarce; suppliers are nowhere to be found. After Helen is arrested for prostitution, a narcotics detective named Hotch (Alan Vint) begins to pressure her into giving up Bobby, offering her a break in the charges filed against her. She refuses but Hotch is persistent. Eventually, she betrays Bobby and he’s arrested and sent away. After his release, despite the betrayals, the petty crime and the prostitution Bobby and Helen stay together continuing on their destructive course.
The film is a disturbing harrowing gritty view of people living and lost in a marginal world. Contributing to this somber mood is Schatzberg’s lack any background music. The soundtrack consists of only the sounds of the streets, cars honking, motorcycles, and people talking. Unlike many other drug themed films of the period, Schatzberg does not indulge in any psychedelic, strobe lighting effects. He does not celebrate nor does he criticize his characters and he refuses to condemn or pity them.
Both performers are gut wrenching and courageous in their roles. Al Pacino, hungry for a film career, gives an astonishing performance as Bobby, not yet going over the top as he is sometimes apt to do in some later performances. Pacino is effective in so many scenes it’s difficult to select just a few highlights. Whether he’s the cocky street kid trying to impress a girl by stealing a television or overdosing and near death, he is a commanding presence. He created a character you feel you know or have seen, maybe someone you grew up with from the neighborhood. Francis Ford Coppola admired Pacino’s performance so much in this film that he fought with studio heads at Paramount insisting he get the role of Michael in “The Godfather.” For Kitty Winn, this was her first feature film and she is stunning as Helen, the girl from the mid-west, who develops an $80 a day habit. You watch her as she slowly deteriorates, wasting away before your eyes as the film progresses. Winn gave such an outstanding performance she deservedly won the Best Actress award at Cannes. Incredibly, she was not even selected for an Oscar nomination that year.
The film has lost none of its power over the 35 years since its release. Its relevance today is apparent in more recent films, like “Drugstore Cowboy”, “Trainspotting,” and “Requiem for a Dream,” all of whom owe a debt of gratitude to Schatzberg. Today, the area once known as Needle Park, officially called Sherman Square, located at the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue on the upper West Side of Manhattan, is clean and upscale. Of course, the problems that made it famous or infamous did not go away. It just moved to other neighborhoods. In 1973, Schatzberg made one other great film that has been under the radar, before slipping into mediocrity. The 1973 film “Scarecrow” also starring Pacino, along with Gene Hackman, is arguably the best 70’s buddy movie ever made.
Note: The Panic in Needle Park is part of the Film Forum’s Pacino’s 70’s running through February 24th.