The Panic in Needle Park (1971, Jerry Schatzberg)
The Panic in Needle Park seems to have existed for the last forty years solely as “the film that got Al Pacino the part of Michael in The Godfather”. In truth, this label does the film a disservice – on its own merit it exists as a gritty and realistic portrayal of heroin addiction in the New York of the early ‘70s.
Produced on a micro-budget, The Panic in Needle Park utilises its core elements to great effect. Al Pacino’s performance as Bobby is stunning – charismatic and perplexing, Bobby simultaneously comes across as a sociable and likable guy and a decrepit addict, hopelessly controlled by his heroin-dependency. While Pacino excels as the protagonist, very much his equal is the city itself. Comparable to Scorsese’s beautifully decadent depiction of the Big Apple in his 1976 film Taxi Driver, director Jerry Schatzberg fully immerses us in the city’s backstreets and alleyways, its lesser-known culture of hardship, far away from the glitz and glamour of Broadway.
Kitty Linn, who plays Bobby’s love interest and friend, puts in a vulnerable performance that also draws similarities with Taxi Driver. Like Jodie Foster, she is a young girl drowned by the city’s daunting nature. They both take to hard drug-use, and eventually prostitution, evidently overwhelmed by their similar scenarios. Much like Whalberg and Bale in this year’s The Fighter, neither Linn’s nor Pacino’s performances would work without the other adjacent. Pacino is larger than life and full of energy, Linn is reserved and quiet: his Dicky Eklund to her Micky Ward.
As the narrative progresses we get to know the junkies on screen, their nuisances and quirks, and most importantly, their flaws. The way of life itself is inherently flawed – ‘chasing the dragon’ endlessly, looking for that perfect moment of bliss. Even when they do find some peace in the drug itself, it is never long before the effects wear off again, causing a swift crash to reality followed by the realisation that they must once again spend hours grafting, just to scrape together enough cash to pay the dealer another visit.
Another peril of the trade is the frequent and seemingly unavoidable jail stints. As Bobby tells Helen, he has been in and out of prison his entire life, rarely being on the outside long enough to forge himself a proper place in society. Yet somehow he has created a social standing – everyone on the streets of New York seems to know him, making him seem like an affluent and friendly character.
As the film reaches its end it becomes apparent that Bobby will face another term in jail. Whether or not he will ‘rat’ up the food chain we are not sure, but it seems inevitable that he will eventually be behind bars. The final sequence itself is superlative – it is understated and minimal, yet we learn more about the characters and the culture in those last few moments than we do in the entirety of the film. The Panic in Needle Park will remain as “the film that got Al Pacino the part of Michael in The Godfather”, but it deserves to be known as more. The film’s New York may not be as stylised as Scorsese’s version in Taxi Driver, but it is more immersive and compelling. With it’s strong performances, this film will take you inside the mind of a junkie, making you pity and sympathise with them, at times maybe even making you briefly envy them. It’s also a beautiful snapshot of 1970s America.
There are only two bonus features present on the disk, both interviews. The first is with director Jerry Schatzberg and cinematographer Adam Hollender, the second with screenwriter Joan Didion. Co-writer Gregory Dunne is sadly absent from the latter, having passed away in December 2003 aged 71. Both features are interesting enough, though on their own they make for an underwhelming amount of bonus content.