“In one scene, we were supposed to be dealing on the corner, and there was a guy actually dealing heroin right there. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I got real confused.” – Al Pacino in a 1979 interview, remembering the filming of The Panic in Needle Park.
Francis Ford Coppola found his Michael Corleone after watching Al Pacino in the 1971 movie The Panic in Needle Park. The 30-year-old actor had already been on the New York stage before he took the starring role in Jerry Schatzberg’s low-budget film about drug addicts in New York City, but Pacino’s kinetic performance announced the emergence of major new film actor.
Available for the first time on DVD, The Panic in Needle Park is a prime example of a new style of American cinema verite that developed in the early ’70s, using hand-held cameras, on-location urban photography, gritty subject matter and streetwise acting. The Oscar victory for William Friedkin’s The French Connection, released a few months after The Panic in Needle Park and also filmed on the streets of New York, symbolized the acceptance and popularity of this new form of realistic moviemaking.
But The Panic in Needle Park, unlike French Connection, was not a box-office hit. Its subject matter — heroin addicts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side trying to survive during a shortage (or “panic”) of available drugs — is undoubtedly depressing, particularly given the almost-documentary nature of Schatzberg’s depiction of addicts preparing their stuff and sticking needles into their veins. It’s among the most viscerally anti-drug movies ever made. (And the PG rating is mind-numbing; the drug-usage scenes are especially disturbing.)
Yet the performance of Pacino as Bobby, a hyper but sweet petty thief and sometimes junkie — “I’m not hooked, I’m just chipping” — is absolutely riveting. Bobby plays a fast-talking, quick-witted guy who can be very appealing, then an amoral, desperate, self-absorbed addict when in need of a fix.
He becomes involved with a young woman from the Midwest named Helen (Kitty Winn), whom we (and Bobby) meet when she’s recovering from an illegal abortion that lands her in the hospital when she can’t stop bleeding. The film’s most tender moments show Bobby taking care of Helen as she recovers.
The Panic in Needle Park, which was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, details their growing and deepening relationship, in which their obvious love and caring for each other gradually becomes secondary to first Bobby’s, then Helen’s, increasing need for heroin. And heroin, we see, trumps every human relationship, as addicts will do just about anything to score.
Years later, in 2004, when he reflected on the making of The Panic in Needle Park, Pacino noted that he drew on his own life experiences for his portrayal of Bobby.
“I grew up in a world that had people like that in it,” he told Lawrence Grobel, author of “Al Pacino: In Conversation With Lawrence Grobel.” “My best friends died of overdoses.”
Pacino wasn’t the only actor noticed for his performance in The Panic in Needle Park. Richard Bright, who plays Bobby’s older brother Hank, went on to play Michael Corleone’s henchman Al Neri in all three Godfather movies. Other New York-based actors such as Raul Julia, Paul Sorvino, Kiel Martin (Hill Street Blues) and Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) also are in the cast.
Yet Kitty Winn, who is terrific as Helen, and of whom Pacino later said was deserving of an Oscar nomination for her work here, never had the career her performance promised. Outside of playing the nanny in 1973’s The Exorcist, she had a meager movie career.
But for Pacino, The Panic in Needle Park was the vehicle that led him to stardom. The actor later recalled to Grobel his feelings about starring in his first movie: “There it was, what I grew up with, what I was inspired by all my life: films. And now I was in one. It was too exciting for words. It was overwhelming.”
Soon, moviegoers would be overwhelmed by Al Pacino.