• Panic In Needle Park, The

    Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
    Released on: June, 2016.
    Director: Jerry Schatzberg
    Cast: Joe Santos, Al Pacino, Kitty Winn, Alan Vint, Richard Bright, Raul Julia, Paul Sorvino
    Year: 1971
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    Based on the book by James Mills and directed by Jerry Schatzberg in 1971, The Panic In Needle Park is widely credited with taking Al Pacino’s film career to the next level (it was his first major role). The backers wanted a bigger name for the lead but Schatzberg was so impressed with the young actor that he stood his ground and fought for him to get the part. The rest is movie history, and this early film in Pacino’s storied filmography remains a highpoint in the first half of his career.

    The story is set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and it follows a pretty young woman named Helen (Kitty Winn). She’s on the outs with her boyfriend, a self-absorbed artist named Marco (Raul Julia), who won’t make a commitment to her. When she meets a drug dealer named Bobby (Al Pacino), it isn’t completely surprising that she falls for him pretty quickly. He’s handsome and charming and the fact that he uses heroin doesn’t, initially at least, seem to be a deal breaker for her. Things start to change when the amount of heroin available on the streets starts to dry up.

    But Bobby is troubled. He and his brother Hank (Richard Bright) often commit break and enters, stealing what they can and fencing it for money. The fact that Hank uses too doesn’t help things. The heroin that is available, what little there is, starts to get very expensive very quickly and soon enough, the users and the junkies are competing with one another just to get a fix. Helen want to take Bobby away from all this, to maybe move upstate or something, but he’s not having any of it and eventually, she starts shooting up too. Without the money they need to support their habits, Helen starts walking the streets and selling herself to come up with the cash, while Bobby starts working for a local gangster. Meanwhile, Chico (Kiel Martin), a narc, seems to be everywhere and know everything.

    The Panic In Needle Park is a pretty harrowing look at what some people will go through to feed their addiction. It portrays the lives of its characters in no uncertain terms – life on the streets is hard for these people, and they seem powerless to do anything to improve their situation, even if they know they should. The more we get to know them and understand why they do what they do, the more impact the story has. Most of these people aren’t bad, per se, though they often do bad things for the wrong reasons. The story is smart enough to clue us in as to why – Helen was unhappy with her home life and her relationship with Marco and Bobby offers a nice change for her. By the time his problems have become her problems it’s too late, she’s in love. Bobby, on the other hand, comes from a family all too familiar with petty crime. He doesn’t know any better, even if he knows better. His moral compass is off. As the stories of the different characters, supporting and lead alike, become intrinsically linked, we’re pulled into their dangerous world from the safety of our living room (or theater seat).

    As the film progresses, the love story starts to fall apart. There are no winners and the addiction starts to take over where once earnest feelings formed a genuine bond. This is reflected not just in the acting and the dialogue and the body language but in the very look of the film itself. It was all shot on location, so the seedy side of things we’re shown in the picture always feels completely authentic. The film doesn’t use a soundtrack, it features no score, it just presents these sad characters ‘as is’ and lets us make up our own minds about them. Al Pacino and Kitty Winn deliver fantastic work here. You never doubt the authenticity of their performances and as such, both their rise and their fall feels very real. There are subtle ticks that each of the two leads brings to the film that go a long way towards fleshing these people out. Despite their very many and very obvious flaws, for the most part we like them. You know it won’t end well, but that won’t stop you from sticking with it until the end.


    The Panic In Needle Park is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and it looks quite good here, particularly when compared to the previously released DVD versions. Detail and texture are strong across the board and the gritty location photography looks great here. There isn’t much in the way of print damage to note. Colors reproduced very nicely while black levels stay solid. Skin tones look lifelike and accurate and there are no obvious issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. All in all, this is a pretty nice looking picture.

    The English language DTS-HD Mono Master Audio track is fine. There isn’t really a score here but the dialogue stays clean, clear and easy to understand. This isn't a fancy mix by any stretch but it suits the realistic nature of the movie just fine, getting the job done without any issues. Optional English subtitles are provided.

    Extras start off with a twenty-five minute archival featurette entitled Panic In The Streets Of New York that is made up of a series of interviews with director Jerry Schatzberg and cinematographer Adam Holender. It’s interesting to hear about how they came to be involved with this shoot, the importance that it played in the early part of their respective careers and what it was like working with the different cast and crew members while on set in New York City. The disc also includes a nine minute piece called Writers In Needle Park that interviews Joan Didion who co-wrote the film and worked with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and his brother Dominick, who produced the film.

    Outside of that we get the film’s unused score by Ned Rorem as a secondary audio track in DTS-HD format along with a two minute piece that details that score. It was contracted, composed and recorded but never used and its inclusion here is a fantastic addition to the release. There’s also a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Packaged inside the Blu-ray case alongside the disc is an insert booklet of liner notes written once again by Julie Kirgo. They offer some interesting observations about the effectiveness of the film and some welcome background information on its origins.

    The Final Word:

    The Panic In Needle Park isn’t the feel good movie of the year, not by a long shot, but it is a remarkably well made film and a harrowing look at the perils of addiction. The two leads deliver top notch work and the Blu-ray release from Twilight Time offers it up in an excellent presentation with some decent supplemental material.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      You rat up, you don't rat down. Love this one.
    1. JoeS's Avatar
      JoeS -
      PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971) Jerry Schatzberg's semi-documentary look at a pair of junkies in NYC is a very dark affair. What keeps it watchable are Al Pacino (Bobby) and Kitty Winn (Helen) as the leads.

      Pacino, in his first starring role, is already fully formed. Even more than GODFATHER I, Pacino exudes the star power he'd later refine in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SERPICO and, yes, GODFATHER II. He so grabs the screen that, at times, you forget that he's supposed to be a strung out loser. Winn (who's only other major role was as Ellen Burstyn's assistant in THE EXORCIST) stays step for step with Pacino. As literally a mid-western girl off the bus, Winn is even more believable as a needy young woman in a downward spiral in a search for herself (she won Best Actress at Cannes; unfortunately, her career was brief as she essentially retired from acting by the end of the decade). Raul Julia (also in his first on screen role) makes an impression as Helen's ex.

      While the cast is pretty much unassailable, PANIC lacks compelling drama. So focused on making it realistic (including long and VERY detailed heroin injection close-ups) that Schatzberg doesn't give the viewer a compelling reason to follow the characters. The screenplay, surprisingly, is by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (his brother, Dominick produced). It's episodic nature doesn't really translate to film. Didion is probably largely responsible for making Helen somewhat interesting, but, that alone doesn't make the whole successful. And, the ending, while not surprising, doesn't leave the viewer with much, either.

      PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK is a prime example of the kind of film that no major studio would touch today (it was released by Fox): Dark, glum and lacking in virtually anything that could be considered 'entertaining'. What does remain is the impression that Pacino makes, and a glimpse of what could have been if Winn had stayed in acting.