The Panic in Needle Park

Yes folks, I’m back from my mini-vacation and ready for some reviewing. So, to get back in the swing of things, here’s my take on Jerry Schatzberg’s “The Panic in Needle Park (1971).”

First, a definition: the ‘panic’ in the title refers to when the supply of heroin dries up, and the junkies are forced to go to extremes for a fix. Into this picture come Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn), two aimless souls caught up in the whirlwind junkie scene.

When we first meet the pair, Bobby comes to Helen’s rescue after an illegal abortion sends her to the hospital. He visits her (nobody else does), and she attaches herself to him so she doesn’t have to wake up alone.  Bobby, in all his manic lust, takes Helen under his wing to protect her and care for her the best he can, despite his serious drug habit and lack of steady income.

And not long after, Helen starts dipping into his junk, and now there are two full-fledged addicts coping with the panic.

And there’s the film for you: Bobby and Helen struggle to survive, score, shoot up and repeat the whole process the next day. “The Panic in Needle Park” is one of the only films I can think of that attempts to show audiences what it means to be a junkie.

And what does it mean? It means poverty, jail, endless searching for the next fix, giving up everything that matters for the next hit, living waiting for death or the next score, whatever comes first. It means life without hope, life without future, life without living.

It’s grim cinema but the authenticity is startling; there’s not a hint of glamour in the lives of Bobby and Helen, and their mutual devolution is both heartbreaking and realistic.

That authenticity is also somewhat a hindrance; “Panic” does bare some resemblance to an after-school special (but with pedigree, considering Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wrote the screenplay). It doesn’t completely fall into that trap, but the relentless dreary atmosphere, authentic or not, occasionally comes across as over the top.

But that’s a debate for another time; “The Panic in Needle Park” is a dark trip in to a dark world, and it’s worth seeing where this ‘road not taken’ leads.

“The Panic in Needle Park” (1971)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne


Al Pacino (Bobby)

Kitty Winn (Helen)