The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

In 1971, “The French Connection” took a gritty, documentary-like approach in its portrayal of two cops taking on a seemingly untouchable group of Frenchmen before a huge drug deal goes down.  We watch the daily process of stakeouts in the freezing cold, footchases through city streets and subway stations, the testing of a drug’s purity, deals, busts, searches, and every other seemingly mundane facet of a full-on drug investigation in astonishing detail.  That same year, “The Panic in Needle Park” took an arguably similar approach in its depiction of the other side of that drug situation.  Okay, maybe not literally the other side of the law, in terms of the shadow organizations and manufacturers and dealers as opposed to the cops, but rather those affected by the manufacture and sale of those drugs on the streets.  This film is about two people, Bobby and Helen, and their day-to-day lives as heroin addicts barely surviving on the fringes of society – more specifically, Sherman Square in New York City, more commonly known as Needle Park.  Some of the details of their drug-riddled lives are shown in agonizing detail, like a step-by-step drug transaction of Bobby’s or many, many shots of needles entering skin.  Sometimes moments like these get too monotonous, too detailed (alright, we get it, their lives suck, move on), but boy was I impressed with the realism and the subdued pseudo-documentary style, where even those monotonous shots are presented without sugarcoating, in all their anti-glory (there’s no music in this film whatsoever).  There’s no music cue or crafty editing to nudge us in the ribs and tell us to deplore or pity these people – we must simply watch what they do, let their actions speak for who they are and the choices they’ve made.  Seeing the needle enter Helen’s arm, blood creeping into the syringe, the plunger going down, and her face suddenly going from lucid to utterly catatonic in a matter of seconds might be one of the most painful and gut wrenching images I’ve seen in a film in quite some time.

“The Panic in Needle Park” is a character study more than anything else, so it goes without saying that it relies on the performances of the two lead actors to actually make us give a damn when they shoot themselves up into oblivion, and when much of what we see are repetitive, albeit powerful, moments in their everyday, pathetic lives.  Al Pacino, in his first big starring role, has his moments, but didn’t floor me in the least.  Too many times, the young Pacino delves into film school method acting…the look-at-me! style of an inexperienced method actor looking to make a splash a la James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”  He’d scream a little too loudly when angry, fidget a little too obviously when trying to express withdrawal, and would just be a little too expressive when trying to, say, hustle someone or use his charm to get in his more composed brother’s good graces.  He was trying too hard to act, to stand out, though signs of his acting skill to come in later films can be gleaned here and there.  The real find here, though, is Kitty Winn as Helen.  Seeing her dissolve from shy yet resolute young woman into pathetic, lethargic junkie, is heartbreaking (I was practically screaming for her not to pick up her first syringe the way the audience would tell the girl not to enter the haunted house in a horror movie).  One minute, she’s clean, but making a deal for Bobby – out of her element, but trying to act tough – and later she’s drooling, has no life in her eyes, and can’t get out of bed.  You wouldn’t believe they’re the same person, but she conveys both Helens convincingly, until they become one in a descent of subtly epic proportions.

Repetition ultimately prevents “The Panic in Needle Park” from being anything remarkable – after a while, the formula of Helen and Bobby shooting up, then meeting other junkies in Needle Park, then Helen and/or Bobby getting hassled by the local narc, then Helen prostituting herself, then Bobby getting pissed and screaming at her in full-on Al Pacino mode, then the two of them making up and screwing and shooting up, and the process starting all over again, gets old after a while.  Hell, that exact repetition is probably the entire point – what could be more pitiful than the never-ending cycle that is the repetitious life of a junkie?  The naysayer in me wanted something different to happen after a while – the shot of a needle entering an arm or an overdosed junkie dry heaving loses its squeamish power when you see it again and again – but clearly this film is about realism, so any route for these people but the nearly hopeless, circuitous route would do no good in getting a point across (although a scene involving a cute little doggie and a predictable worst case scenario pretty shamelessly tries to tug at the heartstrings in a film with otherwise impressive realism, so that certainly didn’t work…).  I say nearly hopeless because the staying power of the relationship between Bobby and Helen is impressive, and unexpected.  I would say it’s heartwarming how they clearly care for and need each other, but then again, what does that get them but overdoses, jail sentences, and poverty?  They go through hell, and do some awful things for ‘bread’ and pump some awful shit into their bodies, but some way, somehow, they always end up together again and again.  For what it’s worth, they’re destined for each other, however long, or short, that may be.  The tragedy, though, is that someone like Helen could’ve destined herself for so much more.



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