Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Film Review: The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Writer: Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne
Stars: Al Pacino, Kitty Winn and Alan Vint

The Panic In Needle Park is an eminently watchable film on a depressing and dark subject. The film sets its tone from the very start and never falters for a moment; as the credits role over a black screen, we hear the sound of a New York subway carriage and the voices of the passengers and staff announcing the stops. The sense of foreboding danger we feel is from just hearing these sounds, not sure of what is on the other side, is paid off in the film’s opening frame. A scared young woman grips the holding rail within the carriage for dear life. She is Helen. She is a heroin addict. Welcome to life in Sherman Square – or Needle Park, as the heroin addicts call it.

The film charts the day to day life of Helen and Bobby, played by Kitty Winn and Al Pacino. There is no storyline as such, but that only works in the film’s favour; this is a study of the damage drug abuse can do to two people, but also a study in how they cope and get by. To them, they live a normal life of smoking, stealing, whoring, and scoring. The ‘panic’ comes when they can’t score or they can’t find the funds to do so. The ‘panic’ is what keeps them going because nothing is worse in their lives than the ‘panic’.

The film was shot entirely on location in New York City, and mostly in and around Sherman Square – the intersection between Broadway and 72nd street on the West Side. This is the very first thing we are told, right before the subway train arrives to take us there. The exterior scenes show the real New York of the early 70’s, not the tourist attraction it has now become and shows us a real place we don’t want to be; Needle Park is a place of pimps, hookers, cheap hotels, and a community of drug addicts. This is their home. Director Jerry Schatzberg shoots the exteriors in a way which evokes all the hallmark of my personal favourite era of film making (1969-1979) when the locations were just as much a character as the people. Think Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon; this film deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence if for nothing else than its use of location and the filming of the streets. The 1970s allowed us to hear the hustle and noise of the big city because the film makers wanted to show a real place and hear what the characters would hear. Buses and taxis and pedestrians would sometimes fill the frame, obstructing our view. Real life got in the way (“I’m walking here!” from Midnight Cowboy is a perfect example) but made for a sense of watching a real story unfold before our eyes. There are scenes here where characters talk, but we can’t hear them, the camera has distanced us from them. Only the sound of a pneumatic drill and car horns fill our ears.

It is also worth nothing there isn’t any music or score in the film, the city provides all the sounds we need. This only serves to make the film even bleaker.

The interiors in The Panic In Needle Park are just as dangerous. Hotel rooms are filled with drug users sharing their needles, over dosing, talking about picking up the next trick or planning a small robbery. Sometimes a baby cries. Just another member of the community.

There are four scenes I feel should have special mention in this review. Two filmed indoors and one on the streets; each show a different style of camera movement, lens choice, acting styles, sound editing, and character motivation. All three are stunning examples of what makes an effective scene.

In a hotel room, 8 addicts sit around waiting to get their fix. One guy is slumped against a wall, already having had his. Bobby makes a phone call to sell stolen goods and the film cuts to two other men in the room preparing the heroin, all filmed in close up, the camera handheld (but not in a Paul Greengrass way) and slightly shaking like the hand of the addicts. It looks cheap, raw, and real. The film wouldn’t have had a high budget even by 1971 standards, but these ‘preparation’ scenes are close up, slightly out of focus, and you can see the grain of the film stock. What struck me was that Bobby’s conversation still plays over the top of these scenes – this process and preparation is just an everyday activity but nothing is added for our benefit, instead the addicts just get on with their normality. The injection of the drug is shown in full detail and isn’t a quick ‘in-and-out’ but the camera lingers on a close up of arm and the precision the user takes to get his fix. It is uncomfortable to watch, but this is never a comfortable film. Perhaps only Requiem For A Dream is the only other film I’ve seen which holds no hope for any of its characters at its conclusion. Interesting to think both films are of the same subject matter.

In another scene, Helen walks in on Bobby overdosing in a hooker’s apartment. Pacino gives a full-on performance here – eyes rolled back, his weight collapsing around him, his head like a lead weight. As he and Helen fumble towards the bathroom, the hooker’s baby wails on the bed, the camera is a frenzy of movement, allowing the actors to do and go where they want, leaving us as a helpless witness. This is serves as a reminder of the dangers of their addictions, and mirrors the previous scene, above.

There is a three and a half minute sequence which blew me away. Bobby starts to become a dealer and has to make a collection. The scene begins with him knocking on a apartment door and he enters and puts on a surgical mask, and watches another man a three African women cut, sieve, stir, and bag heroin which Bobby then takes away. Not a word is said, just close ups of the tools and the characters’ eyes. When Bobby leaves, we know he’ll go through that whole process and tomorrow night. It is a fascinating and gripping thing to watch.

Finally, I want to mention a scene shot at night on the streets where we first see the ‘panic’ set in. Until now Bobby has been a leader to Helen and a man seemingly in control. Here, with the camera placed on the other side of the street, we are treated to an acting masterclass from Pacino. His movement is so desperate and deliberate as he searches a phonebooth for some money he was told would be there. Gradually, he becomes more and more tense, the ‘panic’ setting in and taking over his body. He no longer swaggers along, but walks at a pace marching up and down the street for the right phonebooth; when he needs to cross the road, he adapts to the ‘on location’ reality by waiting for the traffic, yet we’re never sure if he’ll just run in front of a car and risk it all. Pacino personifies ‘panic’ here. Schatzberg didn’t yell “cut” when the traffic slowed things down and, moreover, it adds to the intensity of the situation.

This was only Pacino’s second feature film, and already he had a screen presence which makes you sit up and take note. The next year he went on to make The Godfather and gave the performance of a lifetime at only 32.

The film ends as forebodingly as it begins. Bobby leaves jail, and Helen meets him, having played a part in him getting arrested. In normal circumstances, a person would never go and meet the man they helped put away, and the man wouldn’t accept them being there. But for Helen and Bobby, this is all they have; they can’t be apart but can’t live a normal life either. At the gates she says his name, and he walks on. She follows. Nearly a minutes of silence follows until he stops, turns around, and asks “well?” They continue walking and the film abruptly ends. The single utterance of ‘well?’ poses so many questions. Well, what has she got to say for herself? Well, now what? Well, where do we go from here? Well, shall we go and score? And with the film cutting off so shortly afterwards, we will never know.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: The Panic In Needle Park is essential 1970s cinema, and that is as high an honour as I can bestow.

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