Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

          If you’re a fan of ’70s cinema, you owe The Panic in Needle Park a major debt of gratitude—Al Pacino’s performance in this movie convinced director Francis Ford Coppola that Pacino could handle the leading role in The Godfather. So, without this gloomy study of heroin addicts living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we would never have seen Pacino’s sublime work as Michael Corleone. Yet Needle Park is a worthwhile film beyond its cinema-history significance. Written by the posh literary couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (from a novel by James Mills), and directed in a gritty verité style by photographer-turned-filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg, Needle Park is painful and sad, a sonnet to wandering souls who search for themselves in the oblivion of hard drugs. Presented without music and unfolding over a leisurely 110-minute running time, the movie is unrelentingly ugly—characters abuse each other and themselves; injections are shown in excruciating close-ups; and so on. Even by the anything-goes standards of ’70s cinema, this is a brutal depiction of misery without promise of salvation.
          Pacino stars as Bobby, a fast-talking hustler who gets by on dealing, handouts, and petty crime while nursing a heavy habit. One afternoon, he meets a pretty young woman named Helen (Kitty Winn), whom he draws into his orbit with compliments and jokes and kindness. Other characters populating Bobby’s dangerous world include his older brother, Hank (Richard Bright), a professional thief who uses heroin periodically, and a narc named Hotch (Alan Vint), who sees Bobby as a tool for catching major suppliers. Once Helen takes the inevitable step of shooting up for the first time, she starts a spiral down into prostitution. Meanwhile, she and Bobby are so detached from reality they can’t see they’re killing each other—Bobby becomes a full-time dealer in order to keep them both stoned, and Helen sacrifices her dignity by returning to Bobby again and again, despite several near-death experiences.
          Pacino’s performance is alternately explosive and poignant, his streetwise swagger clashing with his tiny physical stature, and he’s persuasive whether he’s sharing tenderness with Winn or simulating drugged states. Winn, a naturalistic, theater-trained actress whose limited filmography also includes a supporting role in The Exorcist (1973), delicately moves between being our window into this depressing world and incarnating the tragic emotions of those who love unwisely. To a certain degree, however, the film’s dirty locations are the main attraction—viewed through Schatzberg’s long lenses during exterior sequences and observed more closely during interior scenes, the sordid textures of low-rent Manhattan speak volumes about the fragile lives of addicts.

The Panic in Needle Park: GROOVY

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