Just before Woody Allen’s Upper West Side characters started engaging in culture wars, other tumultuous relationships occurred in the area’s Sherman Square, a triangular intersection on 72nd and Broadway known to heroin junkies as “Needle Park”. One dope-addled couple in particular, Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn) — who are fictional yet driven by universal truths — navigated the highs and lows of romance while maintaining their ups and coming-downs.
Jerry Schatzberg’s Criterion-ready The Panic in Needle Park is a keen, unsentimental observation of a drug and a relationship, equally self-destructive. Due to the combined artistry of Schatzberg, Pacino and Cannes Best Actress winner Winn, Park aches with despair: close-ups evoke the same amount of pain whether the camera is focused on a heroin injection or simply a character’s glance.
The beginning of Bobby and Helen’s relationship immediately foreshadows the inevitable deterioration. Nervous, garrulous and perpetually chomping on gum, Bobby first charms Helen as if he was flirting with the cute girl on the playground. His approach is juvenile and endearing, mixing sweet compliments with disarming braggadocio; from the fascinated close-up on Helen’s face, it’s apparent that she is entranced by his candor and dumpy charisma. She is enchanted by Bobby’s knowledge of the sprawling city and the oddball acquaintances who greet him at the neighborhood’s Burger ‘N’ Eggs. Helen initially claims to be of the “grass brownie” persuasion, but her intravenous initiation is both jarringly sudden and frighteningly plausible.
The key to The Panic in Needle Park’s gritty, photorealistic beauty is its verisimilitude — not simply in the way Schatzberg’s verité handheld camera captures the essence of the central relationship, but the community of dope f(r)iends. The investigation at the center of Needle Park is how drugs create and destroy relationships — whether it’s a friendship or an intimate involvement. Schatzberg peers inside the minutae while revealing a broader panorama of the insular world these characters have created for themselves. The disillusionment of the era is reflected in the scuzzy urban milieu of early 70s Manhattan and hope is manifested in Bobby and Helen’s futile determination to get married and move out to the country. There may be turns in the film that reveal minor cracks in its realism, but the only concept shattered by the equivocal conclusion is romanticism.