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  Panic in Needle Park, The The Damage Done
Year: 1971
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Stars: Al Pacino, Kitty Winn, Alan Vint, Richard Bright, Kiel Martin, Michael McClanathan, Warren Finnerty, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Raul Julia, Angie Ortega, Larry Marshall, Paul Mace, Nancy Mackay, Gil Rogers, Joe Santos, Paul Sorvino, Sully Boyar, Rutanya Alda
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Bobby (Al Pacino) is a drug dealer, anything that helps him make a bit of cash to fund his own habit, and he turns up at the studio of artist Marco (Raul Julia) to supply him with heroin and get the money owed to him. While he is there he notices the presence of Marco's girlfriend Helen (Kitty Winn), who is not feeling very well, having recently returned from a backstreet abortion that may have done damage to her insides. As the day goes on, it's clear there is no "may" about it, she needs to go to hospital, though she cannot afford any operations since she has no medical insurance, but is admitted anyway because she is bleeding so badly. When she is inside, Bobby comes to visit her to cheer her up, and a connection is made...

Which sounds like there might be a note of hope struck that even in the worst of circumstances there is the chance love can blossom, but director Jerry Schatzberg was far from interested in any reassurances in one of the most depressing anti-drugs films ever made. And by extension, that meant The Panic in Needle Park was one of the most depressing films ever made in general, because unless you are into stoner comedies there's precious little amusing about heroin addiction: even the comparatively lighthearted Trainspotting was forced to consider the dead baby that resulted from its characters' habits. What this did was bring its leading man into the spotlight, and he was a star from then on.

The Godfather was right around the corner for Pacino, and that was down to his performance here which impressed all the right people and convinced them he was ready for the big time, though this was more a cult movie than a blockbuster. That said, you would wonder about the sensibilities of someone who claimed to be a huge fan of this, as it so determinedly rubbed the audience's noses in the squalor of the junkie lifestyle that it was very apparent Schatzberg had designed it to be completely unenjoyable. This was his idea to put anyone in the audience who might be considering taking drugs right off them after watching the drama where there were absolutely no benefits portrayed whatsoever.

It would be funny how utterly horrible the characters' existence was if it was not so dejected, so anti-levity, and the director was not above using disgust in his arsenal if that helped him get his message of doom across. Bobby and Helen become a couple, as we predicted from the opening ten minutes, but theirs is a pathetic relationship that doesn't stand any possibility of contentment thanks to the monkey on their backs, they simply love the heroin rush more than they do each other, no matter how much they try to kid themselves they can conduct a normal love affair: when Bobby suggests they get married, you can just imagine the car crash that would be, and indeed turns out to be so when Bobby's anger and intolerance and Helen's need to be a prostitute to fund her habit sabotages any promise they might have had.

Of course, there is no promise here, simply a grind of scraping together money, often - usually - by illegal means, and then shooting up, the mechanics of which were shown in incredible detail for the day, this being the first movie to show drug injections in closeup, which if you are at all squeamish about then you would be wise to give The Panic in Needle Park a wide berth. Indeed, even if you don't think you are squeamish at all you may change your mind after spending half an hour in the degradation on display here, you can practically feel yourself picking up their infections through the screen by a form of osmosis. Such an ordeal was it to watch that the film felt twice as long as it already was, and it was almost two hours of awfulness as it is, meaning you would really have to be in the right frame of mind to approach this, steeling yourself would be a good option. Though Winn's career dwindled, Pacino's went from strength to strength (it's obvious he was talented) and the cast was littered with faces who would go on to various degrees of success, but while this was a break for many, it was hard to recommend to anyone other than screen masochists.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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