The Panic in Needle Park is an American art film that would have found its natural home in a 42nd Street grind house—although the new print of this 1971 Jerry Schatzberg dope opera at Film Forum this week looks a lot better now than it did then.
Opening to severely mixed reviews, The Panic in Needle Park was trashed for its incongruously fashionable creators (former fashion photographer Schatzberg, screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne), and is remembered mainly for its performances. Making his film debut as the hustler-junkie Bobby, 30-year-old Al Pacino went straight to The Godfather and on to Pacinodom; Kitty Winn, cast as his wide-eyed consort Helen, won the Best Actress award at Cannes and soon after retired in obscurity.
Winn pretty much plays it as it lays—her obvious acting works with her character’s weak sense of self. Pacino, however, is a force of nature. Chewing gum and chain-smoking Kools, this mop-topped motormouth is as wired as Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy and as cute as Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer. “I’m not hooked, I’m just chippin’ ” Bobby tells smitten Helen, a little lost girl slumming with a vengeance. Of course, once he discovers she’s been supporting her habit by turning tricks, he throws the classic Pacino tantrum.
The movie is filled with choice “Fun City” locations (an authentic cold water loft; the hustler-ridden Whalen’s at the corner of 8th Street and Sixth Avenue), although the triangle where Broadway crosses 72nd Street stood in for the eponymous junkie hangout, a block away.
Relative neorealism and an open ending were not unusual in 1971, but The Panic in Needle Park, is unusually sordid: Helen is introduced taking a crowded subway home from an illegal abortion; the movie is punctuated by close-ups of junkies shooting and booting. Schatzberg’s compassion for his characters seems boundless, but it’s hard to know whether the scene in which the dope-addled lovers adopt a puppy would make W.C. Fields laugh or cry.