“WARNING! THIS IS STRONG STUFF!” reads one of the promotional posters for Jerry Schatzberg's 1971 addiction drama The Panic in Needle Park. “This is the unadulterated raw story of what life and love are really like in the HELL of an $80 a day habit!”
Decades after the film's initial release, the more sensationalistic elements don't quite have the punch they used to. The filmmakers (or at least the marketing department) expected that people would be shocked by the endless close-ups of needles being jabbed into arms and by blunt reminders that junkies sometimes engage in sordid behavior in order to pay for their habits. At this point, that stuff feels like the sort of thing you might see in a dozen different gritty cable dramas. Fortunately, the film has more than shock value to offer. Look past the melodramatic '70s grit, and you'll find a tender, thoughtful little love story centered on two sensitively-drawn characters.
Helen (Kitty Winn, The Exorcist) has fallen ill in the wake of a cheap, unhygienic abortion. She's hospitalized due to excessive bleeding, and her boyfriend Marco (Raul Julia, Kiss of the Spider Woman) abandons her. Marco's drug dealer Bobby (Al Pacino, The Godfather) learns of Helen's plight and takes pity on her; offering her some friendly companionship at the hospital and helping her get back on her feet afterwards. Bobby uses heroin on a regular basis, but insists the he isn't really an addict (“I'm just chipping,” is practically his catchphrase).
The film's early scenes are a charming, intermittently funny portrait of two young lovers just trying to stay alive. They make small robberies (and subsequent visits to local pawn shops), sleep wherever they can find a bed and hang out in Sherman Square (nicknamed “Needle Park” for obvious reasons) with Bobby's drug-addled friends (some of whom are in worse shape than others). Eventually, Helen decides to try shooting up, too. Before long, Bobby and Helen are having to work a whole lot harder to maintain their habits, and their behavior becomes increasingly desperate: Bobby starts working for a high-level drug dealer, and Helen contemplates the possibility of engaging in a little prostitution on the side to earn money.
Pacino and Winn have lovely chemistry together, giving us a sweet, charming relationship and then persuasively detailing the way drug addiction – and the external pressures caused by drug addiction – alters that relationship (it's alternately a bonding point of shared interest and a destructive force). This was Pacino's first major role, and it's easy to see why he became an instant star. Constantly chewing gum, sporting a friendly smirk and dishing out lots of flirty banter, he seems like the most relaxed person in the world... until things start getting tense, giving Pacino's now-trademark intensity a chance to reveal itself. Winn's performance is quieter but no less effective: you see her eyes shift from warm infatuation to profound sadness over the course of the film.
Outside the relationship drama, the film is a memorable snapshot of a particular subculture in a version of New York that feels entirely different from the one that now exists. Some of the supporting characters feel like bohemian stereotypes, but Schatzberg gives the busy ensemble scenes a real sense of lively spontaneity. Still, the possibility of tragedy inevitably hangs over this band of heroin-craving misfits. One character speculates that death is the greatest high. Bobby squirms uncomfortably. “Forget about that shit,” he mutters to Helen. A lot of addiction dramas spotlight despondent characters who are trying to cure their sorrows. This one is about characters who love life and try to ignore the possibility that they're killing themselves.
The Panic in Needle Park
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1971