Cast & Crew
In New York City, soft-spoken Helen returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend Marco after enduring an unhygienic and inept abortion. Although Ellen becomes ill from the procedure, Marco is satisfied because he was able to procure the abortion through bartering, and thus did not have to expend any money. When Marco leaves briefly to collect some cash, Bobby, an amiable small-time drug dealer to whom Marco owes money, shows unexpected gentleness and concern for Helen. Soon after, when Helen is hospitalized for profuse bleeding, Bobby sneaks in after visiting hours and tells her that Marco has gone away. Briefly, Helen considers returning to her dysfunctional family in Fort Wayne, Indiana. However, after she is released from the hospital, she moves in with Bobby. As they are walking together, Bobby steals a television out of a parked van and pawns it for money to buy drugs. At his apartment, Bobby declines Helen's invitation to have sex until she feels better. When she awakens to find him taking drugs, he explains that he is not an addict, but only "chipping." At Sherman Square, which has been nicknamed "Needle Park" because it is a hangout for drug dealers and addicts, Bobby introduces Helen to various acquaintances that make up his social group of drug customers. At a cheap luncheonette, she meets Bobby's older brother Hank, who wears a suit and burgles for a living. In an apartment used by several addicts, Helen witnesses the intricate ritual of "shooting up" or preparing and injecting the heroin into a vein, and listens to their discussion of the price and availability of drugs. On the street, Bobby becomes anxious when drugs he has paid for are not in the telephone booth where he is to pick them up. After tracking down the man who sold him the drugs, he is re-directed to look into a trash can. That night his drug-taking renders him unable to make love to Helen. When they are evicted for non-payment of rent, Bobby suggests to Helen that she return home, but she refuses and they move into a sleazier apartment. After Bobby asks her to deliver money to Freddy, one of his suppliers, Helen realizes Bobby has not given her enough money to pay for the drugs and that she will be expected to make up the difference by having sex. While Helen is negotiating with Freddy, Hotch, a policeman on the drug squad, and his partner arrest them. As his partner convinces Freddy to assist them in a sting, Hotch explains to Helen about what it like when there is a "panic." He explains that when the drug supply on the street is low, everyone begins to turn one another into the police, in return for favors. Unexpectedly, Hotch releases Helen without booking her and she returns to Bobby, who begins to use drugs more heavily. While Bobby spends more time sleeping, Helen, who all along has only observed the others, begins to shoot up. Some time later, Bobby is exuberantly playing stick ball with some children, when he passionately kisses Helen and looking into her eyes, realizes she is now using. In his favorite diner, as the drugged Helen sits listlessly beside him, Bobby proposes. Upon hearing the news, Hank asks what they will live on and doubts Bobby's supposition that he can quit drugs. Hank offers Bobby work as a burglar, but Helen rejects the idea, saying instead that she will get a job. However, Helen who has been hired as a waitress, does a terrible job and soon quits. Just before Bobby is to assist Hank in a burglary, he overdoses. With the aid of other users, Helen finds Bobby and helps him through the ordeal, but Hank is angry with Bobby for jeopardizing his plans. Reluctantly, he allows Bobby to assist him on another night, but the theft goes awry and Bobby is arrested. While he is in jail, Helen finds it harder to get drugs and has sex with Hank, in exchange for heroin. When Bobby is released, he and Helen have a big fight, after which Bobby considers moving to the country, but they agree that it is not feasible. Bobby persuades Santo, a major drug dealer, to let him handle distribution in Needle Park, and is directed to an apartment where the heroin is being prepared and bagged. Meanwhile, as they are in need of immediate money, Helen turns to streetwalking. After Bobby distributes Santo's drugs, Needle Park residents are happy to have a reliable source for a while. Bobby tells Helen that he stashed some drugs away as an insurance in case he is arrested, so that he can pay for a lawyer. However, when he finds the drugs missing from his hiding place, he accuses Helen of stealing it. As her health deteriorates from increasing drug use, their relationship suffers. Hotch, who is not surprised to watch her fall from an innocent woman in love to a drug abusing prostitute, keeps an eye on her and, when she is arrested with her john, he asks the arresting officer not to book her, as he needs her for something he is planning. When her mother writes, asking Helen to meet friends who are visiting the city, Helen is reluctant, but dresses up, carefully trying to hide the track marks on her arms. Instead of meeting them, however, she picks up a young virginal customer. When Bobby finds her, he scares the boy away, but then he and Helen begin to laugh. Realizing they have been too serious, they take the ferry to the countryside, where they buy a puppy. On the return trip, they discuss making a fresh start and Helen suggests that they move out of Needle Park, but Bobby refuses and convinces her to go into the men's room to shoot up. When the dog begins to whine, he puts it outside the door. Afterward, Helen discovers the dog missing and finds it just before it falls off the end of the ferry and into its machinery. Desolate, she goes to see Marco, who is back from his trip, but soon returns to Bobby and steals drugs from him. Needing a "fix," she goes to a doctor, falsely claiming she needs drugs for a painful kidney stone. Aware that she is an abuser, the doctor refuses to write a prescription for her, but gives her some samples, telling her never to return. She takes some of the pills, but is arrested for selling the rest to minors. Hotch warns her about the dangers of the women's prison and knowing that Bobby can lead them to Santo, offers to arrange for the charges to be dropped if she will help them to catch Bobby in the act of picking up a drug shipment. When she refuses, Hotch explains that she will go to jail for one to three years, but Bobby, who knows how to work the system, will probably only serve six months. Later, at home, Bobby elatedly tells her that there will be no more "panic" after the new shipment arrives, saying that Santo is giving him as much as he can sell, and is allowing him to have people work under him. In the next two weeks, Hotch approaches Helen several times, reminding her of the pending trial. Depressed, she increases her drug use and spends days in bed, until even Bobby is annoyed. Helen finally agrees to help the police and late one night Helen and Hotch watch, as a squad of policemen apprehend Bobby, who is in possession of a large quantity of heroin. Spotting her on the street and feeling betrayed, Bobby yells, "I was gonna marry you!" Months later, when he is released, Helen waits for him at the gate. Although his first impulse is to rebuff her, he calls to her and they walk off together.
Marcia Jean Kurtz
Adger W. Cowans
John Gregory Dunne
James F. Inch
Ruth A. Oberdorfer
Roger M. Rothstein
Roger M. Rothstein
Murray P. Stern
Panic in Needle Park
--Tagline for The Panic in Needle Park
Originally viewed as a searing, almost too grueling look at drug abuse, this 1971 drama is now best known as the first film to present Al Pacino in a leading role. It was the film that convinced director Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount executives to cast him in his breakthrough role, as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). There are other reasons The Panic in Needle Park is worthy of reappraisal, however. It remains a brutally honest work from one of the 1970s' most visionary directors, Jerry Schatzberg, while also featuring a finely honed performance from its unjustly forgotten leading lady, Kitty Winn.
Photographer Schatzberg, most famous for the portrait that became the cover for Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album, was part of the new generation of filmmakers that swept into Hollywood after the surprising success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Suddenly film executives were open to presenting the personal visions of young directors they hoped would help them tap into the elusive "youth audience." Schatzberg got his first chance to direct with Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), which starred then girlfriend Faye Dunaway as a fashion model trying to make sense out of her life. On the strength of that movie, producer Dominick Dunne approached him to direct The Panic in Needle Park. At first, Schatzberg turned it down. Then Al Pacino, who was interested in playing the male lead, personally approached him. He was so impressed with Pacino; he not only signed on for the film, but also fought to keep Pacino in the lead when investors tried to convince him to cast a bigger box office name. At one point, they even considered Jim Morrison of The Doors. The film, with Pacino as star, eventually was picked up by 20th Century-Fox.
The Panic in Needle Park was based on the novel by James Mills, who wrote it after publishing a two-part pictorial essay on drug abuse in Life magazine in 1965. Needle Park is the nickname for New York's Sherman Square near 70th and Broadway, a famous hangout for drug addicts since the 1950s. The novel's film rights initially sold to Avco Embassy before passing to Dominick Dunne. He assigned the screenplay to his brother, John Gregory Dunne, and sister-in-law, Joan Didion, both acclaimed novelists who had never written a film script before. Since they were living on the West Coast, they did research by staying at a hotel near Sherman Square for three weeks.
The Panic in Needle Parkfocuses on the relationship between Bobby (Pacino), a drug dealer, and Helen (Winn), a student from the Midwest recovering from a bad abortion. As their relationship deepens, she helps him run drugs and eventually starts shooting up herself. As it becomes increasingly difficult to score drugs, Helen turns to prostitution and theft before becoming a police informant. This is the first mainstream film to show addicts shooting up. The first actor to do so in the film, Warren Finnerty, had done so ten years earlier in Shirley Clarke's underground classic The Connection (1961).
The film was shot in New York City, with location shoots in Needle Park and Riverside Park, on the Staten Island Ferry, in the East Village, in a New York hospital and in a jailhouse. Schatzberg used techniques borrowed from the French New Wave to shoot scenes on jittery hand-held cameras, a practice that made the action seem more realistic. Although he had hired classical composer Ned Rorem to score the film, he ultimately decided to go with no background music, using New York City street sounds as the only background. Makeup designer Herman Buchman used flexible collodian to create realistic track marks for the actors. He modeled their design on his study of hospital patients and corpses. The film's graphic depiction of drug use led to its being banned in England for four years.
In the U.S., The Panic in Needle Park opened to mixed reviews, which Roger Ebert attributed to Fox's selling the film as a sensationalistic exposé of the drug culture instead of focusing on its true strength, the sensitive depiction of a relationship torn apart. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice also complained that too many critics reviewed the screenwriters' and director's pedigrees, questioning how two erudite novelists and a fashion photographer could make a film about low-income addicts. For many, however, the film had a very powerful effect. Winn was named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, where the picture was also nominated for the Palme d'Or. Two churches held special screenings in conjunction with drug awareness programs, and a Boston theater chain disregarded the film's R rating to allow children ten and older to see the film as a warning against drugs.
Francis Ford Coppola screened the picture for executives at Paramount to get them to cast Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972), the role that set him on the road to stardom. Pacino and Schatzberg would re-team for the director's next film, Scarecrow (1973), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Winn had no such luck. Despite a high-profile role as Regan MacNeil's nanny in The Exorcist (1973), her film career didn't last for very long. Her last feature was the horror film Mirrors (1978), followed by a few television appearances through 1984. Nor did Schatzberg go as far as other members of Hollywood's new generation like Coppola or Martin Scorsese, despite fine work on pictures like The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) and Street Smart (1987).
Today The Panic in Needle Park is best remembered for providing Pacino with his first starring role, though it deserves re-evaluation as a powerful expression of Hollywood's move toward innovative directorial visions and for the fine work of all involved.
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Producer: Dominck Dunne Screenplay: Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne
From the book by James Mills
Cinematography: Adam Holender Cast: Al Pacino (Bobby), Kitty Winn (Helen), Alan Vint (Hotch), Richard Bright (Hank), Kiel Martin (Chico), Warren Finnerty (Sammy), Marcia Jean Kurtz (Marcie), Raul Julia (Marco), Joe Santos (DiBono), Paul Sorvino (Samuels), Rutanya Alda (Admitting Nurse)
By Frank Miller
Panic in Needle Park
What are you gonna do?- Hank
Well, I'm not gonna do it with you.- Helen
There is no music in this movie whatsoever.
Before the title card a statement reads: "The intersection at Broadway and 72nd Street on New York's West Side is officially known as Sherman Square. To heroin addicts it's Needle Park." As noted in the studio production notes, the "park" is a row of wooden benches lining the tiny concrete island formed by the bordering streets, Broadway, 72nd Street and Amsterdam Ave. The area, which received its nickname in the mid-1950s, is comprised of seedy hotels and luncheonettes, and was a hangout for prostitutes and those involved in illegal drug trade. The soundtrack for the film contains no music, but consists of traffic noises and other natural background sounds only. Several reviews erroneously list the title of the film as Panic in Needle Park. Although most reviews list the running time as 110 minutes, the film's copyright records listed a 116-minute duration.
The film was based on a novel by James Mills, which had been based on Mills's two-part pictorial essay in the 26 February and March 5, 1965 issues of Life magazine. According to a November 1967 Hollywood Reporter news item, film rights for the novel were purchased by Avco Embassy Pictures and, according to a March 1969 Variety news item, the film rights were later bought by producer Dominick Dunne, whose brother and sister-in-law, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion wrote the screenplay.
As noted in the onscreen credits, the film was shot entirely in Manhattan. According to the film's studio production notes, portions were shot at Needle Park and the West Side area of New York City, as well as Riverside Park, a New York City prison and hospital ward, the Staten Island Ferry and the East Village. The studio notes reported that makeup man Herman Buchman studied the "track" marks on the arms of hospital patients and victims in morgues and achieved an authentic look for the actors by using a liquid called Flexible Collodian. In scenes in which actors appear to inject themselves, a registered nurse was on set, serving as a technical advisor.
According to a modern source, Jeffrey Walker apppears in the film as a prisoner. The Panic in Needle Park marked Al Pacino's first starring feature film role, although it was neither his nor Kitty Winn's feature film debut, as the studio notes and some reviews erroneously reported. Previously Pacino had appeared in a small part in the 1969 Me, Natalie and had won Obie and Tony awards for Broadway theater performances.
The Panic in Needle Park was shown as an American entry at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, where Winn received a Best Actress award for her performance. According to an August 1971 Variety news item, because of the timeliness of the subject, two churches presented screenings of the film in conjunction with seminars and discussions for students and teacher. The news item also stated that a Boston circuit operator disregarded the film's R rating, which was awarded based on language used in the film, and allowed anyone over ten years of age into the theater without an adult.
Released in United States Summer July 13, 1971
Re-released in United States January 30, 2009
Released in United States 1996
Restored print re-released in New York City (Film Forum) January 30, 2009.
Released in United States Summer July 13, 1971
Re-released in United States January 30, 2009 (New York City)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)