The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

Why do people even TRY heroin? Who gets offered heroin and says, “Sure, I’ve heard good things about that”?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not very streetwise. Nor any other kind of wise, save for the kind of wise that makes you not want to do heroin.

I’m certainly not going near it after watching The Panic in Needle Park. It’s about as bleak a statement in American cinema about junkies, their lives, their struggles and their screaming matches in grimy New York City apartments. In a way, it’s also a love story (between two desperate, combative addicts), though it’s one of the last movies that I’d recommend for Valentine’s Day cuddling.

There were many other drug movies before this, but this is the first dead serious one of the American New Wave that started in the late 1960s. It’s a film that’s all raw bone. Cold, un-beautiful city streets. No music score. Not much hope, either. An uncluttered space for top notch actors to work.

Al Pacino, in his first lead role in a movie, is charming and repellent at the same time as the veteran needle-freak and all-around New York City fast talking guy on the hustle. His patter is so snappy that he manages to get his new girlfriend, Kitty Winn, into the vein-puncturing lifestyle. She’s every bit as a good as Pacino, just more sad. Unlike him, she still has a soul to kill. Pacino assaults our senses, while Winn breaks our hearts. They’re junkies in love for awhile, blowing their minds together… but addicts are selfish and they’re liars, which I learned from Dr. Phil are bad things to bring into a relationship.

Director Jerry Schatzberg keeps his ear to the pavement and lets us smell taxicab exhaust and taste cold northeastern air along with the brilliant performances. He dives headfirst into making a good film that you don’t want to see more than once. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wrote the script, adapting a James Mill novel. You can’t miss the young Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino in small parts.

One thing you might miss though is why Kitty Winn didn’t become a major film actress after this. I’m at a loss to explain it myself. She’s run through the wringer here and never flies less than true. Her scene with the dog? Don’t even talk to me about that. I’ll be depressed all day.