The Panic in Needle Park (1971) Jerry Schatzberg


“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.” Continue reading