Monday, January 2, 2012

Why See This...The Panic in Needle Park [1971]

      One year prior to playing pristine mobster son Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, Al Pacino found himself immersed in a different type of criminal as Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park (1971).  But unlike in The Godfather, his crimes failed to bring in the glory and riches he garnered as the mobster Corleone.  Instead, his heroine use pushed him to scourge the dirty streets and alleyways of 1960s New York, performing petty crimes to fill his empty pockets and get his daily fix.  This is emphasized to the point that we never see Bobby’s home in the film.  “I gotta lot of places” he says at one point.  Early on, this statement holds a possible truth.  He could in fact be a big time pusher with spots throughout New York; however, the more we watch, we soon find out that's far from the truth.  He hides the fact that he has no permanent place he can stay and instead, his drug use forces him across the city streets each day.  His main spot though is on the corner of Broadway and 72nd Street at Sherman Square, otherwise known as Needle Park- a junkie hangout named for obvious reasons.
      Actually, the first sequence of the film does not introduce Bobby, but another lost yet innocent soul, Helen.  She’s on her way back from what we find out later to be an abortion; however she's not on her way home.  Instead she’s going back to boyfriend’s place who, as she enters the room, is picking up a bag of heroine from Bobby.  Shortly after, Helen’s boyfriend bails on her and leaves town, at which point she falls for Bobby very shortly after.  The film does not waste any time explaining why they are attracted to each other- they're both young, lost and in love and by the looks of it, they both need someone to hold on to  Helen find’s Bobby’s hard handed, drug filled lifestyle to be an exciting change from her boring and ordinary life.  “I was born and went to school” is the only description she gives about her life before Bobby.  Tailing Bobby throughout the remainder of the film, Hellen is introduced to the many aspects of drug culture and at the same time, so are we.
      The film follows cinéma vérité in which a narrative film is stylized to appear almost as if it was a documentary.  Its close observance of drug culture forces the film to exclude intense action and cop chases that appear in other drug-based films like The French Connection.  Instead The Panic in Needle Park prefers for long uninterrupted sequences where we find ourselves holed up in a small apartment watching needle injections and heroin ODs.  Two scenes from the film come to mind- One is the first time we see Bobby and his friendly addicts use heroin.  All crammed into a tiny room, the camera focuses on a select individual as we watch him through the entire process up to the point of injection.  (Supposedly, the actors use real heroin, but this is neither claimed nor denied by its makers.)  The second scene, in a similar setting, is one where Bobby finds himself at the heart of New York’s heroin trade witnessing an assembly line of people weighing and packaging heroin together to sell on the streets.  His eye-opening amazement at the amount of heroin found in one place clashes with our own amazement of the highly organized drug production that could take place within any old apartment room.  The film though in its documentary-like observance of heroin addicts is also a love story between Bobby and Helen, who quickly becomes sucked into the addiction just like Bobby.  She slowly succumbs to heroin throughout the film and even turns to prostitution as a way to make money.
      Even more, everyone always runs the running risk of being snitched on by other users.    When there's no heroin available, its known as a 'panic' and as expected with any addict, they get desperate.    Two low-level police offers in the movie work as rats on the streets asking small timers like Bobby and Hellen for information about the big time dealers cutting them deals for information.  Desperate times call for desperate measures and many times in Needle Park, we watch Helen battle as she battles with this exact dilemma when given a wager by the police.  "Everybody rats," they tell her.
      What’s most effective about The Panic In Needle Park is actually what it lacks and this is music.  None is heard throughout the film giving Needle Park the empty and eerie feeling one would probably really get if they ever found themselves walking through it.  The lack of music also gives way to excellent acting performances by Pacino and Kitty Winn, whose portrayal of newbie drug addict Helen earned her the Golden Palm Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.  In the end, The Panic in Needle Park stands out for its gritty and graphic display of the lifestyle of two young heroin addicts who try and fall in love in Needle Park.  As the screen goes black and the credits roll by in silence, the audience is left with contradicting emotions- sympathy for their romance but disgust for their actions along with a  sense of worry of what their fate make of them.  Lastly, what enters me is amazement as I am left wondering how a film that so truthfully display the darkness of heroin could turn out so beautiful and become one of my all time favorites movies.

                                                            The Panic in Needle Park trailer
+I should probably mention that aside from the trailer's narration by Hellen, there is no use of it throughout the film; however, it was the only trailer I could find on YouTube.

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