Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park, newly released in a widescreen version, is one of countless gems to come out of America in the 70s, the decade that for me was Hollywood's real 'Golden Age'. This fruitful period gave us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Conversation, Chinatown, Deliverance and Badlands to name but a handful. Schatzberg's realist junkie drama, which deserves to be mentioned alongside those other films, features a performance of such eye catching intensity from a young Al Pacino that it landed him the plum role of Michael Corleone in Coppola's The Godfather. Banned in the UK on its initial release due to the stark portrayal of narcotics abuse, including the first scenes of actual drug injections to be seen in a mainstream movie, The Panic in Needle Park is a tough, unsanitised and fittingly bleak representation of a wretched way of life.
Pacino stars as Bobby, a charismatic small time hustler and hopeless addict alongside Kitty Winn as Helen, the unsettled and impressionable country girl who falls for Bobby's dubious charms. This is no ordinary love story though, with Heroin an added ingredient making for a decidedly unstable and increasingly abusive menage-a-trois. Shot in a verite fashion by Schatzberg and cinematographer Adam Holender in and around 'Needle Park', the nickname at the time for the area covering Verdi and Sherman Square in New York's Upper West Side, the movie unfolds as a series of loosely constructed narrative vignettes charting the lovers' disintegrating relationship. With no soundtrack to manipulate audience emotions, or to distract from the unrelentingly squalid events shown onscreen, Schatzberg's artistic decisions are fully justified as the resolutely unvarnished images speak for themselves. Pacino, a riveting, roller-coaster mixture of nervous energy, wisecracks, melancholy, violent outbursts and increasing desperation is the undoubted star of the piece, though Winn's depiction of Helen's slide into addiction, prostitution and betrayal is well worthy of a mention. The other 'star' of the movie is New York itself, captured as it is in the faux-documentary style that the cinema- verite style evokes. New York in the 70s may have been an artistically creative hotbed but as Schatzberg's movie clearly shows it was also a run down, economically ravaged concrete jungle; over-populated, garbage strewn and inhospitable.
As Bobby and Helen collapse into mutually dependent self-destruction Schatzberg allows for no easy resolution or liberal conscience salving respite. The final images of The Panic in Needle Park, in which the fresh out of jail Bobby hooks up with Helen, whose informing put him there, leaves the viewer in no doubt that the pair are about to climb right back on board the train that will lead to more misery, more abusive bust ups and eventually death for either or both of them. Where Trainspotting brought humour to drug addiction and Pulp Fiction brought an air of stylised glamour, The Panic in Needle Park brings realism, and what a grimy, unpalatable vision it is. Recommended.