The Panic in Needle Park

   
   Back when I first discovered movies, one of my favorite actors was
Al Pacino. I don't mean the caricature he has become in some of his more
recent work, but the early films.
THE GODFATHER, SERPICO, DOG DAY
AFTERNOON
. I recently revisited some of those earlier films on DVD and
continue to marvel at how expressive and powerful an actor he could be.
To my mind, it's a little depressing to watch what he has become.
True, he always needed a strong director to rein him in. In a movie like
... AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, he tends to get a bit hammy. By the time he
was delivering his Oscar-winning turn in
SCENT OF A WOMAN (which a
film professor I know deemed his imitation of Foghorn Leghorn), Pacino
was all over the map. This tendency even extends to his stage work:
I've seen the actor be compelling and powerful (Brecht's "
Resistible Rise
of Arturo Ui
") and campy and just plain terrible (Shakespeare's "Richard III").
   
   Back in 1971, Pacino was still a relatively unknown stage actor,
despite his 1969 Tony® Award, when he was cast in the lead of the feature
adaptation of James Mills' novel
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK. The movie
centers on the love affair between rich girl student Helen (Kitty Winn),
who received the best actress prize at Cannes) and small-time crook
and heroin user Bobby (Pacino). When Helen is first introduced, she
has just undergone an abortion and returns to recover at the apartment
of her lover (Raul Julia). There, she encounters Bobby, a fast-talking
drug user who catches her attention. Soon the duo are a couple and
she eventually asks to join him in using.

   Director Jerry Schatzberg (whatever happened to him?) and
screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne don't glamorize
heroin use. The film is gritty and almost documentary-like in its
approach. Indeed, the powerful drama proved to be a difficult sell
and was mishandled by 20th Century-Fox's marketing department.
The studio played up the more salacious aspects of the film, and audiences
weren't impressed. By the time Fox shifted gears and tried to emphasize
the romantic aspects and Winn's award, it was too late. The film was
considered to be a box-office failure.

   The movie works quite well, though, and the dysfunctional love
story is at its heart. While
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK seems to validate
the cliché that girls prefer the "bad" boys, it also serves as a cautionary
tale of the perils and pitfalls of giving yourself over to someone you love
unconditionally. In his first leading role, Pacino is memorable and
mesmerizing. Winn matches him -- and in some sequences actually
surpasses his work. It's a shame that after a handful of mostly thankless
roles, such as the secretary to a famous actress in The Exorcist, the actress
married and retired from the big screen.

   The supporting players are top notch and watching the movie, it
becomes something of downer only to realize how many of the fine
performers are no long with us, among them Raul Julia, Larry Marshall,
Kiel Martin, Alan Vint, and Richard Bright.

   
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK is not a feel-good flick nor is it an easy
one to sit through, but it  serves as time capsule providing a glimpse at
a not too distant past when drug use was rampant on the streets of
Manhattan.


                                 
Rating:          B+


                                      Viewed on DVD
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.