Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Panic In Needle Park

1971, PG, 110 min.
IMDB says... This movie is a stark portrayal of life among a group of heroin addicts who hang out in "Needle Park" in New York City. Played against this setting is a low-key love story between Bobby, a young addict and small-time hustler, and Helen, a homeless girl who finds in her relationship with Bobby the stability she craves. She becomes addicted too, and life goes downhill for them both as their addiction deepens, eventually leading to a series of betrayals. But, in spite of it all, the relationship between Bobby and Helen endures. Written by E. Schofield <>

The 73rd Virgin says... When fans speak of the early 70s as another golden age of Hollywood, similar to 1939, they never seem to mention this and I don't know why. It comes near the beginning of the” New York” movie phase and exemplifies it. All location shooting combined with the entire city as an extra. Grimy streets, dirty cars, stick ball, graffiti-ed subways, the whole bit. There is no music.

We open with Helen riding the subway and looking sick. We then join her and a young Raul Julia as Marco discussing her quality experience at the local abortionist's place,
“the place was dirty”,
“It's a free scrape”
“No more favors”
I'm pretty sure IMDB is wrong about the PG rating. Kitty Winn does quite a bit of upper deck nudity and much of the action revolves around prostitution and drugs and profanity.

Despite her obvious immersion in the New York lifestyle we learn that Helen is from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, wants to be an artist and has been living with Marco. She meets Marco's acquaintance Bobby, pre-Godfather Al Pacino, and he begins charming her. Bobby is obviously a small time thief which he demonstrates by stealing and pawning a television within minutes of meeting her. It's love at first sight, and she's only mildly curious the first time she observes him shooting heroin. He's not hooked, he's just chipping.

We then get to meet all of Bobby's junkie friends while the filmmakers rub our faces in the hardware and protocols of pre-AIDS heroin culture including an extended and excruciating scene of Kiel Martin as Chico shooting into his arm, blood back flow and all.

After a few idyllic days, Bobby and Helen establish the reality of their relationship when he asks her to go to 119th Street – that would be Harlem – to score for him. This is where we meet the local narcotics officer Hotch (Alan Vint, with his native Oklahoma accent intact). He's not undercover although he drives a beat up VW and appears to be younger than any of his targets. Despite his baby face and idealistic career path, he is completely jaded and sees every interaction with the local junkies as just marking time until one of them screws up enough to betray one of their suppliers. He helpfully describes what a panic is like when the supply has been interrupted and imparts the wisdom that, “a junkie always rats”.

With Bobby saving all his good lovin' for the heroin,  Helen is soon bored and isolated enough to begin experimenting on her own. What the movie and especially Winn as Helen communicate so well is the way people are rapidly swept up in the daily search for a high. Even before she is addicted, she lives, eats and breathes Bobby's addiction. You've met people like her. There is so little there, there, that they seem to willfully absorb every pathology around them flying straight into a headwind of common sense.

She saves Bobby from an overdose and still has enough Midwestern values to tell Marcy, the local prostitute not to put the baby in the sink – they all hide in the mop closet while Marcy services a regular – followed by a very funny scene with Richard Bright as Hank, Bobby's more competent brother, riffing on a popular tune of the day, Neil Diamond's/The Hollies' “He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother”.

When Bobby talks his way into a small-time job as the local heroin distributor, we get to follow him into a locked room where we observe professionals at work weighing, sorting, portioning, cutting and packaging the precious commodity in complete silence. I don't understand the first thing about editing, but I'm pretty sure this is good.

Helen will eventually steal his stash that should have been sold to pay the local distributor, she will steal his “wake-up” dose, she will ball his brother and other strangers to maintain an $80.00 per day habit and we will get to watch up close as Pacino flies into PacinoTM rages.

By the end they are talking of marriage while Bobby violently shakes down her tricks. They make one more stab at normality that involves getting a puppy. Nowadays they would just have a baby but it was a more innocent time. But Helen is facing jail time for her frequent busts, Hotch is working on her knowing she will finally give in and we can pretty much tell how it will end. The final scene involving no physical violence but a one-word bit of dialog and cut to black screen is one of the most memorable movie moments of my youth. That black screen shit works.

The whole movie is bleak but surprisingly entertaining. It humanizes addicts as people capable of kindness and community spirit and clear thought but always utterly self-absorbed and self-pitying when the chips are down.

Believe it or not I think I watched this, sans nudity, on TV with my mother back when local broadcast channels showed late-night movies after Johnny Carson or Mary Tyler Moore.

The story is from a book of the same title by James Mills, which I've never read. The screenplay is by the incomparable chronicler of counterculture decay, Joan Didion, and her husband John Gregory Dunne, and was produced by John Gregory's brother, Dominick Dunne, who would later be the incomparable chronicler of celebrity injustice. I don't know anything about the director Jerry Schatzberg, but would observe that there is not an actorly moment in the movie.  It all seems completely real. It's like the five of them decided this is the moment the sunshiny 60s end and here is what comes next.

Kitty Winn won Best Actress at Cannes for this role and she really steals the movie from Pacino. The camera lingers on her eyes for minutes at a time while she silently takes in all the devastation around her, and lord help her, she's intrigued, just like us. Her performance is ranked #76 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006). I would rate it higher. She had roles in the first two Exorcist movies, only appeared in 5 movies in total, did some TV work, and reportedly faded away into a happy marriage and motherhood.

Kiel Martin was an alcoholic who cleaned up and found fame playing alcoholic detective J.D. LaRue on Hill Street Blues and then died young of cancer. Raul Julia got big and then died of cancer. Richard Bright played Michael Corleone's silent assistant, Al, in all the Godfather movies. I don't remember him from anything else but IMDB has seemingly hundreds of his parts listed.

Pacino became Pacino. In my current job I spend much time in less advantaged parts of a large city and in fully a fifth of these houses there is a bedroom where there lives a fat little punk-ass with a flat screen and too many video games, and invariably – invariably – a Scarface poster on the wall. There is never a Panic In Needle Park poster.

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