Needle Park, an area in New York in which heroin addicts hung out, scored drugs, shot up and generally killed time. Introducing us to this area is Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn), a pair of addicts who dream of a different life but seem set on a path that seems to have no possibility of a happy ending.
Based on a book by James Mills, also titled Panic in Needle Park and equally as grim, the script for Panic in Needle Park was written by married writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. The script, and indeed director Jerry Schatzberg’s approach, is rooted in capturing an essence of the real lives of the people it is striving to represent. The efforts to capture these lives is very reminiscent of works such The Addict in the Street, originally published in 1964 and written by Jeremy Larner and Ralph Tefferteller, which also took an uncompromising look at the problems of heroin addiction in America, all through the voices of those living with addiction, bringing personal stories to something that so often people see from the distance.
With a bleak and emotionally impactful script that focuses on a sense of realism, Schatzberg stylistically approaches the material informed more by the recent developments in documentary filmmaking than narrative cinema and the way in which the camera seems to be following these characters closely rather than moving around them adds to the feeling that we are there with them rather than outsiders looking in. There is a real sense of claustrophobia too, heightened by close ups when scenes move indoors, including close ups of needles going into arms and heroin being prepared. Schatzberg puts you right there with the characters and makes sure that you don’t miss any of the cold realities, avoiding any glamour or visual flourishes favouring a more fluid and gritty style. There is, of course, some restraint shown purely due to permissiveness about what could be shown in the seventies but scenes such as the death of a puppy, not really seen but suggested, still seem pretty shocking even in a time in which more graphic scenes can be shown.
The thing that ultimately sells the truth of Panic in Needle Park though is the central performances from Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, they’re addiction, sadness and dreamy wistfulness all conveyed with nuance on subtlety. Winn was awarded the best actress award at Cannes in 1971 for the role and Pacino’s performance is credited as leading to his role in the Godfather and it’s easy to see why, with both turning in performances that belie their relative inexperience on camera at the time.
This new DVD from Second Sight Films is presented in anamorphic widescreen (for the first time on DVD in the UK) and despite the transfer being far too soft in places it is the best the film has looked in some time on a home entertainment release in the UK. The two extras included are entitled ‘Panic in the Streets of New York’ and ‘Writers in Needle Park’, the former being an overview of the film and the second focusing on the writers. They both mostly consist of interview segments but are informative and interesting. A commentary or further input from Schatzberg and Al Pacino, who is completely absent from the extras, would have made for extra features more worthy of the ‘special edition’ tag that this release has been labelled with but the release is still a reasonably decent package.