The 1971 The Panic in Needle Park tells the story of two young lover in New York City.
Helen (Kitty Winn) is an innocent runaway from Indiana who, when we first meet her, has just had a back alley abortion. Her boyfriend, Marco (Raul Julia), doesn’t seem to be too concerned about her or anyone else for that matter. Instead, it’s Marco’s dealer, Bobby (Al Pacino), who checks in on Helen and who visits her when she eventually ends up in the hospital. It’s also Bobby who gives her a place to stay after she gets out of the hospital.
Bobby is a small-time dealer. He’s not book smart but he knows how to survive on the streets and it’s hard not to be charmed by him. He literally never stop talking. As he explains it to Helen, he’s been in jail 8 times but he’s not a bad guy. His brother, Hank (Richard Bright, who also co-starred with Pacino in The Godfather films), is a burglar and he legitimately is a bad guy but he and Bobby seem to have a close relationship. Bobby also swears that he’s not a drug addict. He just occasionally indulges. It doesn’t take long to discover that Bobby isn’t being completely honest with either Helen or himself.
Together, Bobby and Helen ….
Well, they don’t solve crimes. In fact, they really don’t do much of anything. That’s kind of the problem with movies about drug addicts. For the most part, drug addicts are boring people and there’s only so many times that you can watch someone shoot up before you lose interest. Heroin may make the addicts feel alive but, with a few notable exception (Trainspotting comes to mind), it’s always been a bit of a cinematic dead end. The film takes a documentary approach to Bobby and Helen’s descent into addiction and it’s not exactly the most thrilling thing to watch.
Bobby and Helen live in an area of New York that’s known as needle park, largely due to the fact that it’s full of addicts. It’s a place where people sit on street corners and nod off and where everyone’s life is apparently fueled by petty crime. An unlikable narcotics detective (Alan Vint) occasionally walks through the area and tries to talk everyone into betraying everyone else. It turns out that being a drug addict is not like being in the mafia. Everyone expects you to betray everyone else.
As I said, it’s a bit of a drag to watch but you do end up caring about Bobby and Helen. They come across as being two essentially decent people who have gotten caught up in a terrible situation. Even when they piss you off, you still feel badly for them because you know that they’ve surrendered control of their lives to their addictions. It helps that they’re played by two very appealing actors. This was only Al Pacino’s second film and his first starring role but he commands the screen like a junkie James Cagney. Meanwhile, making her film debut, Kitty Winn gives a sympathetic and likable performance as Helen. You watch Winn’s vulnerably sincere performance and you understand why Helen would have looked for safety with undeserving losers like Marco and Bobby and, as a result, you don’t hold it against her that she seems to be addicted not just to heroin but also to falling for the wrong men. Helen does a lot of stupid things but you keep hoping that she’ll somehow manage to survive living in needle park.
Pacino, of course, followed-up The Panic In Needle Park with The Godfather. As for Kitty Win, she won best actress at Cannes but the role didn’t lead to the stardom that it probably should have. Her best-known role remains playing the nanny in The Exorcist.