Filmmaker Firsts: Jerry Schatzberg

#6: The Panic in Needle Park (1971) – dir. Jerry Schatzberg

One of the more depressing films I have seen lately, The Panic in Needle Park depicts the grim downward spiral of young, Indiana-born Helen (Kitty Winn) who embarks on a relationship with a charismatic heroin addict, Bobby (Al Pacino, pre-Godfather), in seedy 70s Manhattan. With a screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, as well as being produced by Dominick Dunne, the film takes a stark look at the ugliness of addiction. Helen and Bobby grow to depend on each other like their shared habit for the needle.

The film takes a graphic and uncompromising look at heroin addiction. The actors have needles inserted directly into their veins; I can only assume that whatever was in them wasn’t actually a narcotic. Then again, it was the early 1970s, so who knows?

Not one of the characters is capable of responsibility or maturity. The image above is from a scene in which Bobby has overdosed in the apartment of Marcie (played by Marcia Jean Kurtz, who would later appear as one of the hostages in Dog Day Afternoon). Marcie calls Helen to come revive Bobby since company – a client – is arriving soon. Helen has to hide out in the bathroom with a barely conscious Bobby and also with Marcie’s baby, a poor creature about whom no one cares much.

Before seeing the film, I figured that Kitty Winn’s performance must be good since she won the Best Actress award from Cannes for her portrayal of Helen. Alas, the character is unevenly drawn. When the film begins, she is about to have an abortion by way of some barely-relevant boyfriend. What are we supposed to infer from that? It’s unclear. Helen appears to be intelligent, based on some conversations she has with Bobby, so it’s a mystery as to why she decides one night to try heroin, which of course hooks her for good. At times Helen seems to want to kick the stuff, but then in the next scene she’ll resort to prostitution to score money for the next fix. It’s a little unbelievable how easily she slips into the low-class, mascara-coated, gum-chewing stylings of Marcie or the other female characters. Helen even resorts to sleeping with Bobby’s older brother, Hank (a perfectly skeezy Richard Bright) to get money while Bobby is temporarily in jail. You never know which direction Helen is headed in because you’re never totally sure what her goals or hopes are. I guess the point is that all the characters in Needle Park are without hope.

Cinematographer Adam Holender (who had earlier photographed another portrait of desperation in NYC, Midnight Cowboy) does well in capturing the grotesque themes of the story, from tongues hanging disturbingly out of mouths and the bulging of glazed-over eyes to the neon signs (sometimes symbolic; see above) and squalid atmosphere of Sherman Square. Pacino probably had his first cinematic chance here to show his intensity, which comes off all the better for having to contend with the fairly boring Kitty Winn. And so many character actors pop up throughout the film – the aforementioned Bright and Kurtz, Alan Vint, Warren Finnerty, Raul Julia, Joe Santos, Paul Sorvino, Sully Boyar (the bank manager from Dog Day Afternoon), Rutanya Alda (who married Richard Bright in 1977) – that it’s interesting to watch for all those famous faces. I just don’t care much for the story, in which the characters don’t really have any arcs and you don’t care about the ending one way or the other.

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