THE FILM 4/5
“I’m not hooked on this stuff. I’m just chipping.”
Al Pacino made his extraordinary starring début as Bobby, a fast-talking, hustling junkie in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), directed by Jerry Schatzberg from a screenplay by the distinguished screenwriting team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Roaming a grim stretch of New York’s Upper West Side, Bobby hooks up with a relative innocent, Helen (Kitty Winn), and as she joins him in addiction, their doomed romance becomes the fulcrum around which this gritty slice-of-life drama turns.
The drug film is a hard film to watch–at least if it’s done the right way. For modern audiences, the most gut-wrenching experience to come along in quite a while is likely Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a film which saw drugs tearing apart four different people in different ways, rendering their shared relationships obsolete and their futures cut very short. The Panic in Needle Park traverses the same ground, only it did so thirty years prior. Above all, its story focuses on the doomed romance (aren’t they all?) between Al Pacino’s Bobby and Kitty Winn’s Helen, who meet randomly at a drug deal of sorts and who begin, unexpectedly, a savage and passionate romance that will see Helen fall victim to the same drug habit that Bobby claims he doesn’t have. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.
Director Jeffrey Schatzberg, who battled in getting this film made, has no romantic notions about New York City, or more specifically, “Needle Park” (a nickname for Sherman Square) where drug users were known to congregate and trade tips about who is holding, and where, and who might have the bread to get off. Settings like these, or broken-down tenement buildings, or prison-like apartments, are where the bulk of the story take place. (Ironically, the only scenes that contain any brightness at all are during Helen’s pre-drug addiction scenes spent in a flat or a hospital bed where she is both temporarily recovering and suffering side effects from a botched abortion, respectively.) But as Helen follows Bobby down his drug-addled rabbit hole, the lights around them dim. Their romance changes face from idealistic, to hopeful, to dreadful.
In Al Pacino’s film debut in a lead role, his Bobby is a tough-talking street hood defying authority at every opportunity while smacking gum or chain smoking cigarettes (sometimes both) in an effort to keep his mind off the fact that he hasn’t used in a while and, well, he really really wants to. But the real showstopper here is Kitty Winn as Helen, whose slow transformation from innocent/fully naive to hopeless addict of both heroin as well as her boyfriend (and on-again/off-again “fiancé”), is where the sucker punch really takes place.
There’s a disarming documentary quality to The Panic in Needle Park, where people interact with awkward sincerity, and where there’s no happy ending in sight. Schatzberg has no qualms about letting the camera get in as close to see Bobby, or Helen, or an array of the dead-ends who surround them, stick that needle into their skin and slowly inject themselves. For minutes at a time, the viewer has no choice but to watch. There’s nothing else on screen they can use to momentarily affix their gaze while they wait for the needle nastiness to disperse. Schatzberg shoves this image into your eye-line because it should be shoved there.
Like Requiem for a Dream, The Panic in Needle Park is a film that effects rather than entertains, hewing closer to life than our happy-ending-wanting brains have come to expect, which is what makes it such a visceral experience. One could argue that the ending is a happy ending of sorts, if only for our characters and no one else. No matter the trials and tribulations they each experience, and no matter the depths they’ll plunge, they always come back, and they always end up in each other’s arms. Whatever battles they have to overcome, they’ll find a way to do it, and they’ll do it together. They are doomed, that’s for sure, but doom is in the eye of the beholder.
THE PICTURE 4.5/5
Who knew such an ugly film could look so good? Ignore the screengrabs included in this review: it’s almost staggering how good The Panic in Needle Park looks, considering it takes place in the scummiest rooms and alleys and rooftops of the scummiest areas in New York City. Indeed, every interior features peeling paint or wallpaper, painted in a sickening green or a flat gray. Outdoors, we’re treated to graffitied walls and litter-strewn streets. But it’s all captured well and perfectly preserved by this probably too-faithful high definition image. There’s a remarkable texture that’s also on display, with Kitty Winn’s adorably freckled face standing out in every shot.
THE SOUND 4/5
Listen to Al Pacino chew that gum! The film’s original theatrical mono track does an excellent job considering it doesn’t have a whole lot of heavy lifting to do. Sold entirely through dialogue and the sounds of New York City, no musical score accompanies the film, leaving the events more realistic. Dialogue is very ably captured and is perfectly presented, being that it’s not fighting any other soundscapes for attention. In exterior scenes there’s an emphasis on city ambience, but interior scenes are quiet, suggesting that our doomed couple exist in their own world together.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3.5/5
If I had to guess, this is probably a first for Twilight Time. Known for including isolated musical scores on all their blu-ray releases, The Panic in Needle Park has the honor of showcasing a musical score composed by Ned Rorem that was entirely cut from the final version, as director Schatzberg felt the film played more raw without it. It’s included here for your listening pleasure, along with two interview segments carried over from the previous DVD release with the director, cinematographer, and writer, all who share their memories about the film’s production and how they came to be involved. (Director Schatzberg talks briefly about how he wanted Pacino from the start, but to appease the studio, he held actor auditions anyway–one from Robert De Niro.)
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Isolated Score Track (featuring Unused Music Composed and Conducted by Ned Rorem)
— Panic in the Streets of New York
— Writers in Needle Park
— Notes on Ned Rorem’s Unused Score
— Original Theatrical Trailer
STUDIO: Twentieth Century-Fox
DISTRIBUTOR: Twilight Time (limited to 3,000 units)
THEATRICAL DATE: June 1, 1971
VIDEO STREET DATE: June 14, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 1.0 DTS Mono
SUBTITLES: English SDH
RUN TIME: 109 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
The Panic in Needle Park is a tough film to watch, as any well-made film about drug abuse should be. And it’s worth watching for two reasons, both similar and very disparate: the first would be to see Al Pacino in his film debut, who hits the ground running in an explosive performance and who is still celebrated today, but the second would be to see Kitty Winn, whose performance has been even more heralded, but who slowly disappeared from the world of acting after her turns in and The Exorcist (and its deplorable first sequel). As film’s end, you won’t be left feeling good, but being that was the intention, The Panic in Needle Park is a success. Twilight Time’s release of it comes highly recommended.
(Thanks to My Reviewer for the screen grabs.)
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”