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Panic in Needle Park

1 rating: 3.0
A movie directed by Jerry Schatzberg

In 1970s New York, Bobby (Al Pacino in his first major film role) and Helen (Kitty Winn) are young and in love--and addicted to heroin. Shot in a loose documentary style, and acted with improvisational rawness, the film shows the young couple's increasingly … see full wiki

Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Release Date: 1971
MPAA Rating: R
1 review about Panic in Needle Park

Panic in Needle Park - 1971

  • Oct 1, 2009
Pros: Pacino & Winn

Cons: none for me

The Bottom Line:
"Goin' down, you're goin' down all the way,
Down the needle park."
~Royal Hunt

Panic in Needle Park is an edgy experience that often feels more documentary or life-like than scripted work. Released in 1971, it is full of the culture of the times as well as the lack of general responsibility in drug use. This was a time when they shared needles like candy at Halloween, not realizing the consequences. Needle Park, at this time, was the area designated in New York around Broadway & W. 70th Street, or Sherman Square. It was given the name in the 60’s by the high drug trade that used the area for shooting up and it pretty much remains the same moniker today although there are far too many new ‘needle parks’ all over the world.

When I first received the movie I assumed that the term “Panic” referred to something entirely different, but I learned, from watching the movie, that during certain times of the year - especially around election time - an all out war is declared by officials against the drug trade, literally banishing drug availability for a period of time. This time is called a panic, and that is the basis for the movie.

This film was written by James Mills and Joan Didion, directed by Jerry Schatzberg. It starred an unknown [to the big screen] actor named Al Pacino, and a relatively unknown miss, Kitty Winn. Pacino, of course, is very well known now, Kitty, not so much. However, they were perfect together in this film and I can’t imagine a better match up at the time.

When the screenplay was given to MPAA for ratings, they wanted to slap a big fat X on the film, because of the language mainly. No mention, at least that I’ve seen, was made of the flagrant drug use, although that seems to be one of their favorite exceptions in ratings. They relented, finally giving it an R rating. I’ve seen kids movies today with R ratings and they don’t match this one as far as language and drug use. Of course, kids movies are much more violent than this one was. It was nominated for two awards, Kitty Win won as best actress at Cannes.

The filming was sometimes jarring and in your face. The actors seemed like they were actually living the parts, not reading a script, it was that free and easy in delivery. Pacino, as Bobby, was the streetwise native New Yorker. He’s done some time in jail, mainly for small time crimes, dabbles in drug trafficking, and, naturally, uses more than he sells. This is a young and swaggering Pacino, cocky even, jittery at times. Reminded me in several parts of Requiem for a Dream with its’ nervous energy.

Winn, playing small town girl from Indiana, Helen, is still somewhat innocent although she’s been around the block a bit. In fact, she and Bobby meet when she has problems following an abortion she had just had, illegally at the time, because her boyfriend Marco wasn’t interested in being tied down.

They are both young, even believing their love will survive all the pitfalls of the drug world, but the lure of the needle is stronger than they would ever assume. Their living conditions are never the best, often crashing wherever they can find an empty spot. They go for days with no change of clothes, no shower, seldom anything to eat. Life isn’t’ particularly pretty in this time, in this film.

Unlike a lot of other films centered around the drug culture, we are not experiencing this solely from the druggies point of view. Rather, we are watching as an outsider observing the animals at play. Just at the point when we might feel a hint of sympathy for these two characters, they each do something so against our own moral code we find them once again offensive.

As far as the film goes, there are no super sonic drug scenes or freaky sex romps. There is absolutely no music in the film, leaving it all to dialogue and everyday background noises. Some of the drug scenes are painful to watch but they are never sensationalized and they are never made to look like - wow, that’s cool. Then, again, I’ve never understood the lure of losing complete control of your body or mind to a substance, well, except for Pepsi.

The fact that the end result on the DVD seems often grainy makes it even more realistic, like no one was taking the time to pretty up the scenes. Of course, it could also be attributed to the fact that the film probably was made with little funds and wasn’t of the highest quality to begin with.

No extras were offered on the DVD except for a trailer. Overall, I think it is a good work that still stands up today and it is nice to see someone like Pacino way back when.



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