Where Have You Been?: Panic In Needle Park

“Where Have You Been?” is a new feature where we will present a film, album, or book that while not new or cutting edge, in its time was, and remains an influence on what’s released today.  You may already be conscious of what is presented, may have forgotten about it, or maybe are completely unaware of its existence.  Regardless, it will always be worth checking out.  The first “Where Have You Been?” will be the classic 1971 film Panic in Needle Park.

Before Al Pacino was known for his roles as Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, and Tony Montana, he played a street-smart and heroin addicted hustler named Bobby in Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park.  Schatzberg used a documentary shooting style that was absent of a musical score, relying only on the noise of New York’s Upper West Side, it’s seedy locations, and the characters as a soundtrack.  Intensely realistic, gritty, and raw, the look and feel of this film is unpolished; all perfect for what Schatzberg is trying to convey to his audience.  Scenes in this film feature some of the most cringe worthy drug use ever witnessed in cinema, even by today’s standards. It would not seem impossible that some of the people shooting up heroin could have been actual drug addicts, using actual drugs.  In one particular scene it feels like minutes that Schatzberg’s camera focuses on the arm of a man and his needle, while Bobby and Helen are heard quietly conversing off-screen, as the sounds of the injecting addicts pain and drug reaction are at the forefront.  A powerful metaphor for how Bobby and Helen’s relationship will later become secondary to their own drug use.  However, Panic in Needle Park is more than just a drug film.  It’s a love story taking  place among drug culture.

Opposite Al Pacino stars Kitty Winn, in a role that won her Best Actress at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival for her incredible performance as Helen.  Helen is a pretty Mid-Western girl, lost in New York’s underbelly.  When Bobby meets her, she is dating an artist and hospitalized from a botched abortion.  Helen quickly falls for Bobby and his brazen behavior.  Although not a drug user herself, Helen never appears fazed by the scummy people and places, or myriad of substances that attract Bobby.  This makes the change in Helen’s behavior and Bobby’s regret for brining her into his world seem even more plausible.  While Helen appears under Bobby’s control, eventually it’s her who’s in charge of their turbulent relationship, and of what ultimately becomes a tale of betrayal and regret, led by Winn’s harrowing performance.

While the story arc is not typical, this film is mostly character driven.  Bobby and Helen go through obvious character development.  While at first Bobby seems like more of a lighthearted braggart, he gradually becomes more and more intense as the film progresses.  Pacino’s performance is also outstanding and memorable.  He is more famous for screaming such lines as “Attica! Attica!”, “Say hello to my little friend!”, and delivering pretty much everything Michael Corleone said with smooth conviction.  However, Pacino delivers some convincing gems in this one when shouting, “You C***! C***! I was gonna marry you!” and scaring the crap out of a young dork, simply by saying in his signature style,  “That’s my wife.  You’ve been having assignation with my wife?”  This was Pacino’s first starring role.  However, enough promise was shown that Francis Ford Coppola used some of this footage to convince studio heads to give him a shot as Michael in The Godfather.

Also featured in this film are Richard Bright as Bobby’s older brother, Alan Vint as a sneaky narcotics detective, Raül Julia, and Paul Sorvino.  Kitty Winn would later appear in The Exorcist but turned down the roles of Connie in The Godfather and Ellen Ripley in Alien, and afterwards faded into relative film obscurity.  However her performance in this film is enough to keep her in the minds of cinema aficionados everywhere.

Not much more can be said about Panic in Needle Park without spoiling it for anyone who has never seen it.  It presents an era, place, and its people with remarkable precision.  Its influence is found in future films like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, and Sid and Nancy.  Panic in Needle Park is available on DVD and through Netflix, so add it to your queue.

Here is a podcast of a Q&A with director Jerry Schatzberg, Kitty Winn, and writer Joan Didion.  New York’s Film Forum recorded it in January 2009.

Below is the 1971 trailer for Panic In Needle Park, which contains a few spoilers.

– Ian Lewis

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