Today’s film couldn’t be more different than last week’s. Young Mr. Lincoln was a classic illustration of the Golden Age of Hollywood studio system. The Panic in Needle Park is a shiny example of what emerged with the fall of old Hollywood in the 1960s and the rise of New Hollywood with movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider.
With virtually no plot to speak of, The Panic in Needle Park is all about two troubled lovers: Bobby, a small-time drug dealer and heroine addict, and Helen, a woman lost in life. Helen (played by Kitty Winn) stumbles into Bobby’s life after her boyfriend, Marco (played by Raúl Juliá in a very small role), suddenly leaves town while Helen is recovering from an illness brought on by a poorly performed abortion. (The cause of the illness, I must admit, alluded me until I read about it on Wikipedia. Call me stupid or unobservant if you want.) Marco owed Bobby (played by Al Pacino in his second ever film and his first leading role) money and Bobby becomes concerned for Helen while she recovers alone in a hospital. Helen is taken in by Bobby’s charm and kindness. She ends up moving into his apartment located in Manhattan’s Sherman Square, also known by the many drug addicts and dealers who live and work there as Needle Park.
Bobby tells Helen he is not a heroin addict but a casual user. Helen finds this to be false as Bobby’s addiction only seems to get worse. (Just as a side note, this was the first mainstream film to feature actual drug injection.) Helen begins performing some of Bobby’s deals. She quickly gets arrested by a narcotics detective (played by Alan Vint), who is used to making deals with lower rung drug dealers in order to catch bigger names. A panic, where drug supply is low and druggies start ratting each other out, sets in. This doesn’t stop from starting to use heroin herself. With Bobby going in and out of jail, Helen is forced to make money any way that she can, which doesn’t always please Bobby. Their relationship deteriorates as their addictions worsen and pressure from local police grows.
I’ll be honest. I’m not always the biggest fan of plotless movies. They can be interesting (2014’s Boyhood) and they can be extraordinarily dull (2014’s Mr. Turner, which does have merits but ultimately left me bored and confused). Why The Panic in Needle Park succeeds is largely down to its reality, its principal performers and its pacing.
A character driven piece can easily become a slog if the director doesn’t carefully manage the pacing. While we’re essential just following these two people through their daily, drug, sex and occasionally violence filled lives, director Jerry Schatzberg keeps things moving by keeping scenes short and to the point. Nothing is drawn out. Every event and moment is given the proper time it needs and then the film moves on. Sometimes that means a four to five minute scene. Other times it translates to a 20 second scene. Important events and little character moments never feel rushed, no matter the scene length. Scenes play out at a natural pace that only serves to heighten the sense of reality, which is helped by the movie’s location work and style of storytelling.
The Panic in Needle Park was shot entirely in New York city, with most scenes taking place on the streets. There’s no score to speak of (though one was composed but ended up unused). Along with the pacing, these qualities combine to create a stark, documentary like feel (also known as cinéma vérité) that’s as refreshing and new as I’m sure it was back in 1971. Everything is authentic. The cops, the druggies, the sellers, the shooting up scenes, the arrests, the joys, the tragedies. Nothing is false. Part of that is the cinéma vérité style and part of it just good writing and acting.
In 1971, Pacino had yet to earn his first of eight Oscar nominations for The Godfather, but he had won one of two Tony awards for acting. He also had extensive training under Charlie Laughton and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and he’d spent a few years on-stage. In other words, he may not have been a world-renowned performer yet, but he was already a skilled actor. This comes through in his work in Needle Park. He and Winn, who must be equally commended for what she brings to the screen, are portraying real, damaged people who are never really going to succeed in life or be on the right side of the law. They make many mistakes throughout the course of the movie, and they don’t always treat each other well. In fact, they are downright horrible for each other. At times they bring out the worst in the other and make their situation worse. Their relationship is unhealthy, their actions wrong, their way of living destructive, but rarely are they unlikable or unsympathetic. Even when they are at their worst as human beings, they hold on to your empathy with personalities that are still, somehow, impossibly charming and relateable.
I hate to use the world real again but that’s what this movie is down to its very core. I wasn’t expecting to feel this positive and pleased with this film. It was a great surprise. One I hope you get to experience, too.