Inside Out
by Emily Condon

The Panic in Needle Park
Dir. Jerry Schatzberg, U.S., 1971, Twentieth Century Fox

Given its pedigree, it’s surprising that The Panic in Needle Park has been so overlooked in the decades since its 1971 release. Director Jerry Schatzberg has enjoyed a modest career as a filmmaker (other films include Scarecrow, the heralded but largely unknown Puzzle of a Downfall Child, and the Willie Nelson vehicle Honeysuckle Rose), but his work as a photographer is widely recognized and includes the iconic cover shot of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. First couple of hard-nosed sophistication Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted the script from a novel by James Mills, and Dominick Dunne (of Vanity Fair fame) produced. The young, electric, and untested lead, Al Pacino, turned out to be the biggest star of the project—a year later, he’d enter the annals of cinematic superstardom as Michael Corleone. Legend has it that the producers of The Godfather wouldn’t greenlight his casting until Coppola screened Panic for them. Even so, the film itself—a portrait of two junkies in love—largely faded from memory, but it proves well worth revisiting.

When Bobby (Al Pacino) asks Helen (Kitty Winn) what it was like to grow up in the Midwest—Fort Wayne, Indiana, to be exact—she replies, “I had a lawn.” The exchange occurs during a quick getting-to-know-you chat (him: “I been in jail eight times”) in a New York City hospital, where she’s recovering from a botched back alley abortion. Exiting the hospital a day or two after his visit, she finds him waiting on the sidewalk, a bundle of nervous energy with an eager grin plastered across his face. During the walk home, he employs an easy demeanor, asking her questions and stealing a television set with a smile. He wheedles a hard old lady into exchanging the set for money, invites Helen upstairs, and just like that she’s his girl. Their life together soon comes to revolve around her new backyard, a small cement triangle wedged into the intersection of 72nd Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side dubbed Needle Park. A small-time hustler, hood, and drug runner, Bobby is the ersatz mayor of the small army of junkies that inhabit the island.

The two fall for one another, hard. He’s handsome (so handsome!) and vivacious; she radiates childlike naïveté and a sense of decency. But nothing’s ever simple, and before long money and the hankering for heroin get in the way of any storybook ending. Bobby does what he can to get by, peddling stolen coffee and cajoling dealers to hire him. Unable to hold down a job, Helen treads in increasingly treacherous waters. Soon she’s picked up on a drug run by Hotch, an assiduous narcotics detective who apparently specializes in the rough parts of town. He warns her about the “panic,” explaining how when supply gets low, addicts get desperate and rat to the cops to beat a charge or earn a favor. But after she’s sprung her addiction grabs hold. As money and drugs come and go, Bobby and Helen grow more intense and unstable. They fight and they make up, she hooks and pops pills, he does time, and they perpetually wind up in dirty rooms with needles in their arms. And then, after so much muck and squalor, the film quietly exits with a surprising, ambiguous denouement, leaving the viewer adrift.

For all its merits, The Panic in Needle Park has ample imperfections—the dialogue sometimes veers toward cliché (only in the movies do characters say things like “the best high of all . . . IS DEATH!”), and on a few occasions an errant detail yanks the viewer out of the narrative—there’s an unfortunately edited scene involving a puppy named Rocky, the matter of Helen’s family feels under-addressed, and some of the narcotics detectives’ tactics, like having snitches at a bust, seem highly unlikely. But there’s much more to like here, from careful camerawork (a jailhouse telephone conversation especially impresses) to Schatzberg’s decision to forgo any music throughout, to the documentary quality of the street scenes.

The two leads instill a profound pathos into their characters, fleshing out the intentional expository gaps in the script. We never learn why exactly Helen has eschewed her lawn in Fort Wayne in favor of Needle Park, what is in her makeup that compels her to live in ratty apartments and repeatedly offer her body up to various kinds of harm, but Kitty Winn’s face tells us most of what we need to know. When her eyes dart around—they always seems to be one step behind—or she crumples the soft area under her chin, it’s as if her middle-American hope, humility, and wholesomeness converge at the same moment that she discovers the sensation of real fear. This deer-in-the-headlights aura breaks one’s heart at first, but by the time Helen’s into an $80-a-day habit, we wonder whether we’ve been duped. In the end, it’s impossible to say. Bobby, for all his bombast and bluster, is simpler, an apple gone bad with the bunch before he had a chance. Didion and Dunne allow the viewer bits of hope early on—e.g. Bobby tells Helen that he’s “just chipping”—but with heroin, of course, there’s no such thing as “just.” Watching The Panic in Needle Park isn’t a particularly pleasurable experience, and there may be better chronicles of seemingly decent people getting caught up in ugly situations, but it’s an at times extraordinary portrait of two people imprisoned by their own floundering.

Since the picture’s 1971 release, gritty drug movies have carved out their own corner of the independent film sector, and watching the film today it’s hard to feel divorced from subsequent generations of young beautifuls with greasy locks and collapsed veins. Generic hallmarks abound—bags of powder are unwrapped and tapped it into bottle caps; Bics swish under the aluminum; bubbles blister and pop; belts are tightened around biceps; rack focus shots reveal fleeting clarity before the inevitable blur. The banal nostalgia and mundane obsession with price, procedure, and availability that unfailingly characterizes drug abuse are captured well, if briefly, and though by now it’s an old standard, it’s still shocking when a timorous wail cuts through the thick terror of an overdose sequence and the camera pans to reveal an infant. What’s most striking to the contemporary viewer of the film, however, is not what remains the same, but what’s so drastically changed.

“New York was no mere city,” Joan Didion wrote in Goodbye to All That, her brilliant if bitter 1967 screed about life in New York. “It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself . . . I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there.” Didion traffics in broken dreams, and for her they find their culmination in this city that she sees as incapable of meeting its romantic promise, this city that extracts a pound of flesh from swooning transplants and replaces it with anxiety, unfulfilled desire, or, in Helen’s case, heroin. The New York depicted in The Panic in Needle Park—from the Upper West Side to Harlem, from booking rooms and holding cells to the Staten Island Ferry—is all shards and rot, the remnants of a glittering dream long since washed into the gutter. That Helen once had a yard is meant to underscore her tragedy, and perhaps it does in that she, unlike Bobby, had a choice. But today, as the meth lab–addled Midwest gives urban powder rooms a run for their money and Manhattan has morphed into a benign if banal millionaire’s playground, we can see that it’s not the city that wrecks apple-cheeked innocents who dare to enter. Panic doesn’t live in parks; it lives in minds and hearts.

The Panic in Needle Park plays this week at New York's Film Forum—click here for showtimes.