The Panic in Needle Park is a remarkable film in so many ways. It’s a document of the moment when Heroin spread from the Jazz clubs to the city, drugs were always there but it wasn’t till the counter-culture revolution of the ’60s when they became widespread. The spread of Heroin in New York was mostly in the African-American community of Harlem which may have been started by the CIA to control that community. Needle Park is Sherman Square which for a while was the only place in New York where you could get your fix outside of Harlem.
The film also the birth of Al Pacino as a leading man to be reckoned who had of course been on stage throughout the ’60s but only had one small role in Me, Natalie before he got the lead in The Panic in Needle Park. It’s sometimes considered his on-screen debut because Me, Natalie is a long forgotten film. He plays the two-bit hustler and junkie Bobby who falls in love with this middle class gal Helen (Kitty Winn) and then documents their descent into heroin addiction in an almost photojournalistic fashion.
The director was the all but forgotten director Jerry Schatzberg who himself was a photojournalist in the ’60s and was a major part of New Hollywood movement of the ’70s. He shot everyone from Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick during this time. He also starting playing around with film and eventually made his debut film Puzzle of a Downfall Child which was a bit hit in France but remains hard to find in the UK and US. He initially turned down Needle Park but when Pacino was interested he latched on onto the project.
Schatzberg was helped enormously by a sparse but elegantly written script by Joan Didion which she co-wrote with her husband John Gregory Dunne. The film is equally sparse with the cinematography which was all shot on location which is the only way you could make this film. It even does something only a handful of films have ever done (including “silent films”) by having absolutely no music of any kind for the entire film. The lack of music makes the plight of Bobby and Helen even more gruelling and powerful.
Overall The Panic in Needle Park remains one of the finest films to come out of the New Hollywood boom of the ’70s but despite being known as Pacino’s “first film” it’s fallen out of favour. Schatzberg’s follow-up was the equally excellent Scarecrow, which starred Pacino again alongside Gene Hackman and both actors play off each other in glorious fashion. The Panic in Needle Park remains one of the most powerful statements on drug addiction ever on-screen without any form of romanticism some films on the subject have like Sid & Nancy. It also has the most heartbreaking scene involving a dog ever commited to celluoid.
Signal One’s disc is as excellent as you come to expect from them. The bulk of the features are various interviews with Schatzberg talking about his background in photography, his first film, The Panic in Needle Park, his relationship with Pacino amongst many other things. The interviews total well over 80 minutes and if that wasn’t enough he also got a commentary on selected scenes for 22 minutes. It’s rounded off with a short interview Joan Didion on the screenplay and the theatrical trailer.