The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

Director:

Jerry Schatzberg

Cinematography by

Adam Holender
This movie is a stark portrayal of life among a group of heroin addicts who hang out in “Needle Park” in New York City. Played against this setting is a low-key love story between Bobby, a young addict and small-time hustler, and Helen, a homeless girl who finds in her relationship with Bobby the stability she craves. She becomes addicted too, and life goes downhill for them both as their addiction deepens, eventually leading to a series of betrayals. But, in spite of it all, the relationship between Bobby and Helen endures.
kinopoisk.ru

A romance that will pierce your heart … literally …

25 August 2011 | by ElMaruecan82 (France) – See all my reviews

Addiction is such an incomprehensible phenomenon to those who don’t endure it, that making a film which portrays with such a gripping realism, not only the devastating effects but the reasons that push people to destroy themselves, is an accomplishment that deserves respect. “The Panic in Needle Park”, from the director Jerry Schatzberg is not only one of the most significant films of the ‘New Hollywood’ era but a slice of New York’s early 70’s life with an undeniable documentary value.

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The film follows the lives of heroin-addicted people in the intersection between Broadway and the 72nd, the only place outside Harlem, where you could get the drug : Sherman Square aka ‘Needle Park’ during a severe panic, which, in the business jargon, refers to a period where there’s no supply.

Schatzberg’s direction is austere : no music, no innovation à la Martin Scorsese, only a camera following a bunch of young people in New York streets, confined claustrophobic houses, hospitals, sordid bedrooms but allowing us sometimes to breath in a green area. The camera works as the eye of the viewer and I challenge those who’d doubt the authenticity of the images not to cover their eyes during the close-ups, where you can witness a needle piercing a vein and injecting the stuff and all the immediate effects : rolling eyes, turning heads, licked lips, the horrific graphicness making you wonder why so much people fall in that spiral.

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To answer this question, the movie needed to detach itself from its own tone, and provides a story; it did even better with a romance, and quite a poignant and realistic one. The characterization of Bobby and Helen is admirably handled by both Kitty Winn and Al Pacino, in his first starring role : you can see in very touching, yet subtle moments, the chemistry growing between them.

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Bobby is so cocky and fun, you know he overacts his own personality in order to seduce Helen, and he’s so over the top, Helen can’t resist. And whenever you doubt Helen’s feelings, just look at her eyes, they tell everything and Al’s eyes don’t say less : in the most poignant and defining scene, Bobby plays baseball with a group of kids in the street, then turns a sudden look at Helen, and realizes she took it. A long and powerful silence follows and his reaction is a love gesture that definitely places these two characters in a warm place inside our hearts. Bobby understands Helen’s act less as curiosity than a deliberate will to join his way of life, so both could be in the same wavelength. It’s a tragic declaration of love, in the same vein than the booze-driven romance between Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses”, another great film about addiction.

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Of course, the romance takes a sordid course, leading us to the discover the junkies’ underworld and get all its tricks. And you know the realism works when it mirrors some of your own experiences. The film reminded me of my current addiction to the water-pipe, or oriental pipe, and how the meticulous preparation provides a sort of pre-excitement before the consumption. I take time to clean the water jar, to insert the body, to use some Kleenex to fix the hose correctly. It may sound ridiculous but this is what addiction is about, habits, and rituals that elevate you to early steps of pleasure until the final and rewarding pay-off. And one day, I broke the bowl, I literally panicked and had to go at night to buy a new one because I needed it. Addiction’s effects reveal to be more vicious when the stuff is missing, driving you crazy to an obsessive point, and there’s nothing that can stop you once you have it hooked on mind.

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But as a neutral documentary, the film is not about judging, condemning or even curing the psychological spiral of addiction but simply understanding it. Understanding why people rat, why women become hookers, why some crimes are committed. Addiction inevitably leads to a destructive alienation, where even death doesn’t scare. Every junky accepts this eventuality, and when one is having an overdose, there’s a disturbing mix of humanity when the friends are trying to awake him and hostility when the house locater who doesn’t want troubles.

Bobby, Helen and the others are all regular people, with families, babies, living in lively neighborhoods, but they’re caught in a horrific spiral that undermines any attempt of regular romance and the relationship between Bobby and Helen survives to all the difficulties, because their relationships is not totally disinterested : Helen can get the heroin from Bobby, and if he’s in jail, she can get it from his brother Hank, played by Richard Bright. And if Bobby needs money, he can get it from Helen’s hooking.

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Talk about a sordid romance’s basis, but the relationship is no less sincere and powerful in the way it makes us feel sorry for two pitiful and endearing characters. And the acting is crucial here, Kitty Winn, who won the Cannes Award for Best Actress, is heart-breaking in this role, as her eyes, looks, cries and laughs convey the mix of vulnerability of a girl who still wants to be legitimate, and the toughness of the drug-addict who finally knows the ropes. Al Pacino delivers one of his most brilliant performances as Bobby, the street-wise, goofy dealer, who completes Helen’s introversion. Both actors are wonderful, and a honorable mention to Bright who illuminates his scenes, with a character so unlike the laconic Al Neri.

Yes, it’s hard to believe both Pacino and Bright, would work together again in one of the greatest movies ever : “The Godfather”, so if not for the beautiful romance and the extraordinary portrayal of New York’s heroin-addiction, the movie launched one of the most successful movie careers and just for Al Pacino, I say : thank you, Mr. Schatzberg !

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A great portrayal of a relationship between two drug addicts.

9/10
Author: Jacob Østergaard from Denmark
5 August 2004

This movie is not for people with sensitive nerves. Its harsh realism is very breathtaking, at times almost overwhelming. It concentrates in showing what drug addiction does to people in a relationship and succeeds in doing that. That’s also the reason for its timelessness and artistic value.

Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who plays the two main characters, Bobby and Helen, are very realistic in showing the ups and mostly the downs in the life of a drug addict. Especially the way they at times put their craving for drugs above each others needs.

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The first time I saw the film I was 15. It was shown at my school and it made a very strong impression on me, especially its portrayal in the miserable life of a drug addict. I can therefore, among other things, recommend it as a preventive film for young people.

One of the best films I’ve ever seen.

9/10
Author: MovieAddict2016 from UK
21 August 2005

So I was scrolling through a Borders outside of London one day, looking at all the expensive R2 DVDs I didn’t have enough money for, when I spotted a movie I had never even heard of starring Al Pacino – “The Panic in Needle Park.” It had the same front cover (style-wise) as “Scarface,” which was an obvious marketing ploy. It had a quote from Francis Ford Coppola, which claimed he chose Pacino for “The Godfather” after seeing the film and screening it to Paramount execs.

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It had piqued my interest and it was only five pounds (roughly ten dollars) so I thought, “Why not? If it’s awful it’s still only five pounds.” I bought it, went home later that night and watched it.

I was blown away because it was easily one of the more interesting character studies I’d ever seen. It’s got unlikable characters, for sure, but there’s still a connection to them which allowed me, at least, to relate to their struggles. (And no, I don’t use heroin.) The film stars Al Pacino in one of his very first roles as a heroin addict living in New York City, an era dubbed “Needle Park,” where all the junkies hang out. (I believe I saw the exact same park in another drug movie released the same year, called “Born to Win,” starring George Segal and Robert De Niro.) Pacino gets a girlfriend and gets her hooked on heroin. Essentially the film just examines her downfall from prosperity to hellish misfortune – they both live for their next hit.

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The movie is unflinching. It’s raw, brutal, and uneasy. (I recall reading they actually hired heroin addicts for the “shoot-up” scenes, something that would never be allowed today.) I can understand how some people might be put off by the slow pace of the movie and say, “How can I be expected to enjoy a movie with such vile characters?” However, I thought it was handled well – it’s on the verge of exploitation sometimes (primarily the scenes which show the junkies shooting up) but for the most part manages to walk a careful line between exploitation and study.

Pacino’s performance is one of his best ever, which is a shame because he never receives credit for it. It’s one of the only roles where he isn’t in control and although he does yell a few times, for the most part he’s more calm and subdued – Michael Corleone as a drug addict.

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“The Panic in Needle Park” is a great, underrated film and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle the content. It’s not a rewarding experience in the typical sense but after spending two hours with miserable heroin addicts, it will make you feel better about your own lifestyle.

A romance that will pierce your heart … literally …

9/10
Author: ElMaruecan82 from France
25 August 2011

Addiction is such an incomprehensible phenomenon to those who don’t endure it, that making a film which portrays with such a gripping realism, not only the devastating effects but the reasons that push people to destroy themselves, is an accomplishment that deserves respect. “The Panic in Needle Park”, from the director Jerry Schatzberg is not only one of the most significant films of the ‘New Hollywood’ era but a slice of New York’s early 70’s life with an undeniable documentary value.

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The film follows the lives of heroin-addicted people in the intersection between Broadway and the 72nd, the only place outside Harlem, where you could get the drug : Sherman Square aka ‘Needle Park’ during a severe panic, which, in the business jargon, refers to a period where there’s no supply. Schatzberg’s direction is austere : no music, no innovation à la Martin Scorsese, only a camera following a bunch of young people in New York streets, confined claustrophobic houses, hospitals, sordid bedrooms but allowing us sometimes to breath in a green area. The camera works as the eye of the viewer and I challenge those who’d doubt the authenticity of the images not to cover their eyes during the close-ups, where you can witness a needle piercing a vein and injecting the stuff and all the immediate effects : rolling eyes, turning heads, licked lips, the horrific graphicness making you wonder why so much people fall in that spiral.

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To answer this question, the movie needed to detach itself from its own tone, and provides a story; it did even better with a romance, and quite a poignant and realistic one. The characterization of Bobby and Helen is admirably handled by both Kitty Winn and Al Pacino, in his first starring role : you can see in very touching, yet subtle moments, the chemistry growing between them. Bobby is so cocky and fun, you know he overacts his own personality in order to seduce Helen, and he’s so over the top, Helen can’t resist. And whenever you doubt Helen’s feelings, just look at her eyes, they tell everything and Al’s eyes don’t say less : in the most poignant and defining scene, Bobby plays baseball with a group of kids in the street, then turns a sudden look at Helen, and realizes she took it. A long and powerful silence follows and his reaction is a love gesture that definitely places these two characters in a warm place inside our hearts. Bobby understands Helen’s act less as curiosity than a deliberate will to join his way of life, so both could be in the same wavelength. It’s a tragic declaration of love, in the same vein than the booze-driven romance between Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses”, another great film about addiction.

tumblr_my8kdqjm6m1rpy49jo1_500

Of course, the romance takes a sordid course, leading us to the discover the junkies’ underworld and get all its tricks. And you know the realism works when it mirrors some of your own experiences. The film reminded me of my current addiction to the water-pipe, or oriental pipe, and how the meticulous preparation provides a sort of pre-excitement before the consumption. I take time to clean the water jar, to insert the body, to use some Kleenex to fix the hose correctly. It may sound ridiculous but this is what addiction is about, habits, and rituals that elevate you to early steps of pleasure until the final and rewarding pay-off. And one day, I broke the bowl, I literally panicked and had to go at night to buy a new one because I needed it. Addiction’s effects reveal to be more vicious when the stuff is missing, driving you crazy to an obsessive point, and there’s nothing that can stop you once you have it hooked on mind.

the-panic-in-needle-park-3

But as a neutral documentary, the film is not about judging, condemning or even curing the psychological spiral of addiction but simply understanding it. Understanding why people rat, why women become hookers, why some crimes are committed. Addiction inevitably leads to a destructive alienation, where even death doesn’t scare. Every junky accepts this eventuality, and when one is having an overdose, there’s a disturbing mix of humanity when the friends are trying to awake him and hostility when the house locater who doesn’t want troubles.

Bobby, Helen and the others are all regular people, with families, babies, living in lively neighborhoods, but they’re caught in a horrific spiral that undermines any attempt of regular romance and the relationship between Bobby and Helen survives to all the difficulties, because their relationships is not totally disinterested : Helen can get the heroin from Bobby, and if he’s in jail, she can get it from his brother Hank, played by Richard Bright.

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And if Bobby needs money, he can get it from Helen’s hooking. Talk about a sordid romance’s basis, but the relationship is no less sincere and powerful in the way it makes us feel sorry for two pitiful and endearing characters. And the acting is crucial here, Kitty Winn, who won the Cannes Award for Best Actress, is heart-breaking in this role, as her eyes, looks, cries and laughs convey the mix of vulnerability of a girl who still wants to be legitimate, and the toughness of the drug-addict who finally knows the ropes. Al Pacino delivers one of his most brilliant performances as Bobby, the street-wise, goofy dealer, who completes Helen’s introversion. Both actors are wonderful, and a honorable mention to Bright who illuminates his scenes, with a character so unlike the laconic Al Neri.

Yes, it’s hard to believe both Pacino and Bright, would work together again in one of the greatest movies ever : “The Godfather”, so if not for the beautiful romance and the extraordinary portrayal of New York’s heroin-addiction, the movie launched one of the most successful movie careers and just for Al Pacino, I say : thank you, Mr. Schatzberg !

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deeply disturbing

Author: azeffer from Brooklyn
28 January 2001

This is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. It is very real and grisly looking, not polished with the horrible artificial lighting you see nowadays in films. Bobby and Helen are addicts whose lives are going nowhere, they just can’t get out of their destructive lifestyle. The scenes of the characters shooting up, tricking, and hanging in the brutal streets of 1970’s New York are very realistic. Makes “Trainspotting” look like a Disney cartoon.

Specter of Bergman

Author: harry-76 from Cleveland, Ohio
27 December 2003

Director Jerry Schatzberg’s style looks remarkably like Ingmar Bergman’s in works like “Scenes From a Marriage.” Using no music background only real life sounds, abrupt scene cutting and cross-cutting, highly realistic style, and copious closeups, the Bergman influence is apparent.

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Schatzberg fashioned a piece that has a timeless look and feel. While Verdi Square (Needle Park) may not be quite as rich with denizens today and that W. 72nd subway exit not as peopled with thick crowds, it’s still bustling mid-Manhattan–like no other place on earth.

And no better actor to play the street savvy slicker than Al Pacino in only his second film appearance. He, Kitty Winn and a host of sharp protogees from the Strasberg seminars breathe life into the scenario.

It remains one of Mr. Pacino’s best efforts, and a film that paved the way for a new realism in gritty subject material.

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A Depressing Slice of Life!

Author: jlrayfield from USA
14 January 2003

This is probably one of Al Pacino’s best films. I would say that it is even better then “The Godfather” because you almost want to reach out and help the characters but you can’t. They all have the same problem. That problem is heroin addiction and it has caused a multitude of problems in their lives. This is a great film. It is usually not shown on television (I did see it on PBS a few years ago but I think that was a rare exception) I think however, because of its realistic content most stations try not to air it. If you can find it on video I highly recommend it.

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