Let me say up front that the main reason for my recommending this film is because it was co-written by Joan Didion, and Didion is one of my idols. That’s not to say it’s not a good film. Quite the opposite. By all measures it’s terrific, a groundbreaking work. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, as was the director, Jerry Schatzberg, and the leading actress, Kitty Winn, won best actress. And rightly so. She plays Helen, a doe-eyed waif from Fort Wayne who’s trying find her way in the mean streets of New York City; a young woman who, in her search of love, is drawn into the downward spiral of addiction and street life. She looks as innocent as a church girl, and her demeanor is soft, almost meek, but at key moments her backbone stiffens and she shows a toughness that gives her character dimension and provides a moral force for a film that might otherwise be just another bummer-trip drug film.
The story begins with Helen receiving a back-alley abortion (this is pre-Roe vs. Wade) that lands her in the hospital. Her boyfriend, a self-absorbed artist, couldn’t care less, but when she’s sad and alone in the hospital she receives a surprise visit from a neighborhood guy named Bobby, played by Al Pacino in his breakout role. Bobby’s a sweet guy, funny and spontaneous: on their first date he steels a TV out of a parked van and together they sell it at a pawnshop and all the while she’s laughing, happy, smitten. The next day she wakes up to find him shooting heroin. He’s not an addict, he tells her; he’s just “chipping.” She’s met him right before his addiction plunges into destruction, when it’s still fun and he still believes he can pull it off, that he can use heroin regularly and live a somewhat normal, well-adjusted life. Of course, we know it won’t last, we know where their lives are heading, that bad times are just around the corner, but we remain captivated because the acting is so strong and the characters so well rounded. It’s in their eyes, in the moments when Bobby lets down his streetwise façade and shows his vulnerability and when Helen’s tender and naïve eyes harden into resolve and certainty. In a key scene Bobby asks her to go to Harlem to buy drugs for him and she squints at him and says, “This isn’t about the drugs. It’s to see how far I’ll go for you.” Bobby nods. “Well ok,” she says, and confidently reaches for the cash.
The film is groundbreaking for its portrayal of drug use. There are haunting close-ups of heroin being melted down in bottle caps, sucked into syringes and shot into bulging veins—images so stark and ghastly that the film received an X rating in many places and was banned for three years in England. The style here is gritty realism: the color palette gray, the soundtrack just the noise of the street, no music. But the heart of the story is love, a love that’s difficult to understand, given the circumstances, because there are no corny monologues to explain. Rather, it’s shown in the tender moments Bobby and Helen sometimes share, or when they break free from the bleakness of the city and find reason to laugh and smile—a stick ball game, an excursion to the country, or when they adopt a puppy. It’s these attempts at balance, at finding joy in life, that make the characters fully human and the story about something more than the age-old story of addictive downfall.
It’s here in this dance between happiness and misery where the film most appeals to my love of Joan Didion. For me, The Panic in Needle Park is a companion to Didion’s best essays—“Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” “The White Album,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and the like, essays that captured a world that seemed to be going mad—America in the late 1960s—but that also seemed to always be striving for transcendence and, every once in a while, to actually find it. As with her classic prose, she brings her subjects to life and holds them at arms distance, without overt judgment, gives them room to move around and live and reveal who they are in ways so honest we can’t help but see ourselves in them.- Joe Miller