Tuesday, July 15, 2008

#18: The Panic in Needle Park


The Panic in Needle Park
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (from the book by James Mills)
Released July 13, 1971

Junkie: You know what the best high of all is?
Helen: What is it?
Junkie: Death.

Two days and thirty seven years ago, a young actor was making his debut as a lead in a motion picture. The movie, a dark film about heroin addicts in New York City, would be the first stepping stone in a massive career. That actor was Al Pacino, and that film was The Panic in Needle Park.

While Pacino had actually made his film debut two years prior in a 1969 Patty Duke movie called Me, Natalie, that movie bombed and he was still a somewhat struggling actor with a Tony win to his name. It was Pacino's work as Bobby in Panic that caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, and ultimately won him the coveted role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather in 1972. Three films under his belt and he was essentially a legend in the making.

Pacino plays a charismatic drug dealer, junkie and petty thief who falls for Helen (played by Kitty Winn) the ex-lover of one of his customers (the late, great Raul Julia), a relatively innocent woman and free spirit who finds herself in a rough patch in her personal life. Intrigued by this new man in her life, Helen easily falls into Bobby's habits, including his drug of choice. I'll give you one guess what the "needle" in Needle Park means. The "panic" referred to in the title is the drought of heroin that strikes Bobby and his community of junkies.

The scenes of heroin use are graphic, and the movie gradually becomes more unsettling as the drought carries on. One of the strangest and most interesting features of Panic is the fact that there is no soundtrack music whatsoever, giving it an almost documentary level feeling of realism. Think about it: these aren't the kind of people who don't listen to music or watch TV; they sold those items at the pawn shop long ago.

I saw Panic late one night when I was in college, on some random television station's Late Night Movie feature, and was blown away that I had never heard of the movie. Little did I know that the VHS tape was long out of print, so it would be years before I could recommend the movie to anyone I knew. To be honest. I watched it tonight for the first time since college, just to be sure that the movie I liked so much was as good as I had remembered.

It is. . . and it isn't. What I mean to say is that the movie still holds up, but it's not exactly something I'd recommend. Like any decent movie about drug abuse, there's no pulling of punches. Bobby ODs in front of a baby, and then is thrown out of the apartment so that the baby's mother can turn a trick to buy more drugs.

As times get more desperate, the betrayals begin to mount. Soon, what started out as a twisted love story gets much, much worse. The all consuming habit, as it inevitably does, consumes all.

The Panic in Needle Park is worth checking out as an introduction to one of our finest actors (Kitty Winn is no slouch, either). As a movie, it's harsh, unforgiving and sad. Unfortunately given the subject matter, anything less would be a lie.

For more on The Panic in Needle Park:
- More information at IMDB
- Buy The Panic in Needle Park at Amazon.

The trailer, at YouTube:

No comments: