Simon Columb begins our Al Pacino Retrospective with a look at The Panic in Needle Park…
While we read of those trapped in the never-ending cycle of drug-use, it is more tragic and soul-destroying to see the innocent victim pulled into it. In 1971, The Panic in Needle Park captures the story of an artist’s girlfriend Helen (actress Kitty Winn in the central-role), as she falls for heroin-addict and thief Bobby (in Al Pacino’s break-out role), one amongst the dealers and social-ills in New York’s Sherman Square – known as “Needle Park”.
Stark, arresting close-ups of needles pinching the vein and releasing their fluid are common place. The Panic in Needle Park is not a dying exposé on the hippy-culture that was rife in the 1960’s, and could hardly be considered a follow-up to pop-soundtrack drug-fuelled films such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy two years prior. Instead, more akin to Trainspotting, The Panic in Needle Park is an insight into the loneliness, isolation and dependency that addiction takes hold of. Helen and Bobby need each other, but not as much as they need their next hit. Cop-character Hotch (Alan Vint) reminds Helen that drug addicts “always rat”, while Bobby aspires for so much more – sincerely claiming he wants to marry Helen while she dreams of living in the country. Trust and loyalty is not an attribute of junkies.
Director Jerry Schatzberg films on location with grimy, yellow stained walls and handheld camera work that we would see two years later in Robert De Niro’s breakout film, Mean Streets. Indeed, the hyper-active Johnny Boy of Scorsese’s film is an interesting contrast to the quirky, likeable rogue Bobby in Needle Park. Both are self-destructive and both need their respective posse to survive. While Bobby has Helen, Johnny Boy has Harvey Keitel’s repenting sinner to look after him. James Bell writes in Sight and Sound that, considering Schatzberg won the Palme D’Or in 1973 for Scarecrow, he should’ve joined Coppola and Scorsese in the ranks of esteemed filmmakers of the 1970’s. Responsible for the iconic sleeve of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album, his career is surely ear-marked for a revival.
Actress Kitty Winn was celebrated for her performance too. Winn’s Helen carries genuine grace as a victim of her own loyalty to Bobby. Disintegrating before our very eyes, she is the heart of the film. Al Pacino steals every scene he’s in. The wild-eyed junkie, switching between joker and spaced-out heroin-user, he needs to be likeable enough that we believe Helen falls for him. But this has to be counter-balanced with an addictive persona that relies on drugs despite his own claims that he’s chippin’, when he’s clearly dependent. Shortly before the film starts, we realise Helen has had an abortion and her short spell in hospital provides Bobby with the opportunity to charm. He woos her by bragging about prison. These are vulnerable characters.
The bleak depiction of New York is purposefully tragic. The repetitive cycle of drug-taking, unfortunately drains the viewer forcing The Panic in Needle Park to rely on the central performances. Pacino immediately achieves recognition through his unhinged portrait of Bobby, it is only a shame others failed to break the same ground. The Panic in Needle Park is a challenging watch – and not easy to comfortably sit through. Without Kitty Winn and Al Pacino, this would simply be a shock state-of-society film. Instead, we see a blossoming relationship spiral southward. While Kitty reacts and follows Bobby, the thrust relies on Pacino. He transcends the cliché performance of the crazed, dangerous and threatening druggie. We believe in him and know that behind his amiable nature (it’s why Helen loves him) there is a broken man.
For more on the Al Pacino Retrospective running at the BFI throughout February amd March, head here.