A cautionary blast from the Big Apple’s past, Jerry Schatzberg’s character study of a pair of Manhattan heroin addicts plays these days like an Actors Studio public-service announcement. Timing is everything: When first released in 1971, The Panic in Needle Park was a frank and wrenching corrective to the preceding decade’s better-living-through-chemistry bliss-out (or Hollywood’s venally saccharine understanding thereof, anyway), and helped set the standard for movie portrayals of druggie culture down the road.
Produced and cowritten by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (from a mid-’60s Life magazine story and, later, a book by reporter James Mills), Panic is told from the perspective of Midwestern naïf Helen (Winn), who falls for small-time dealer-user Bobby (pre-hambone Pacino) and acquires a habit of her own. The couple haunts the Upper West Side’s junkie hangouts—shot by Midnight Cowboy cinematographer Adam Holender in a less-hysterical mode—hatching schemes to score dope that include turning tricks and pulling holdups. A soulful cop (Vint) and various doper pals complicate matters, and a crucial betrayal follows.
Repetitious as its story line is, the problem with Panic isn’t tedium—its addicts’ routine is largely melodrama-free and convincingly deadening—nor is the abortion that precipitates Helen’s downward spiral a deal-killer. What rankles, especially in light of later junkie viewing (Bubbles’s thread in The Wire comes to mind), is the artifice of it all. The movie’s well-fed, camera-loving cast and general air of self-satisfied slumming reveal Panic for what it is: the kind of drug movie a pair of Malibu intellectuals and a fashion photographer would cook up.
Cast and crew
Marcia Jean Kurtz