The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

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There were certain circles who felt that films such as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream somehow glamorised heroin addiction in the minds of the youth. Despite the immense suffering and terrible consequences that befell the main protagonists, these young attractive stars were making heroin addiction seem dangerous and exciting. Well, if those circles wanted a film to show to their children to make sure they steered clear of the junk, they need look no further than The Panic in Needle Park.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg and starring Al Pacino in his first starring role (it was the role that convinced Francis Ford Coppola to cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather), The Panic in Needle Park depicts the horrific reality of inner city drug addiction. The squalor and grime that surrounds the desperate and emaciated leads is not dressed up in any way and many of the outdoor scenes were indeed shot in a cinema verite style with the real life bustling New York City providing the drab backdrop. Visually speaking, these are clearly the same down and dirty New York streets that are found in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The French Connection (1971). New York at this time was renowned for its dangerous streets and seedy underbelly and Schatzberg utilised this to great effect in order to achieve the film’s grungy look.

Pacino is absolutely superb as the streetwise hoodlum Bobby. Bobby knows everyone on the streets and every trick in the book when it comes to scoring. He runs into a naive and vulnerable young girl called Helen who despite at first seeming completely alien to the drug scene, soon becomes enamoured with Bobby and becomes caught up in his world. The two of them fall in love and their turbulent relationship is the bedrock of the film’s story. There troubles really begin when Helen herself begins dabbling in heroin at the very same time there is a city-wide shortage known to the addicts as ‘a panic’. As the drug gets scarcer, the price goes up and the lengths they go to obtain it get more extreme.

The scenes of drug taking and in particular of injecting heroin are graphic and frequent but so skilled is Schatzberg in immersing us into the grubby street life of Bobby and his friends, that by the midway point in the movie, you barely bat an eyelid anymore. The whole film is shot with minimal fuss. There’s no music whatsoever and very few sets as a large portion of the shoot occurs out on the sidewalks and park benches of the city itself. Pacino’s Bobby is up there with his very best roles, easily on a par with Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico and Tony Montana. He starts off very cocksure and full of swagger but as his intake increases and the panic sets in he begins to show a frailty and a desperation that wasn’t there before.

Underneath the drugs, prostitution and criminality however lies a love story. Helen falls under Bobby’s spell from the first meeting where he hands her his scarf to keep her warm. The two of them continually talk about getting married and moving away but their reliance on heroin and their inability to make their dreams come true makes the story all the more poignant.

The film has slipped relatively under the radar when compared to other Pacino movies, a fact caused largely by it being banned on initial release in the UK for its ‘graphic depiction of drug use. ’ Hopefully this DVD release will see it reach a far wider audience as despite its bleak tone and harrowing story it is still a captivating and moving film.

The Panic in Needle Park is out on DVD 5th September 2011.

Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Stars: Al Pacino, Kitty Winn, Alan Vint
Runtime: 110 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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