The Panic in Needle Park Review

New York City, the early 1970s. Jenny (Kitty Winn) meets Bobby (Al Pacino) and they soon fall in love. But Bobby is a heroin addict, and Jenny is drawn into his world...

The Panic in Needle Park was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne from a book by James Mills. It's a film that epitomises a certain style associated with the 70s: a narrative driven by characterisation – and that's characterisation in varying shades of grey rather than simple black and white – rather than plot. There is no music score. It was shot on the real streets of New York and the camerawork is often grainy. (Polish-born DP Adam Holender, whose had shot Midnight Cowboy used The Battle of Algiers as a visual reference.) It also benefited from recent liberalisation of censorship, especially regarding drugtaking, language and, to a lesser extent, sexuality. Schatzberg doesn't pass judgement and spares us very little: Jenny meets Bobby in the aftermath of an illegal abortion and the shooting-up sequences are very graphic. As for language, there's an early use, though not the earliest example from a major-studio release, of “cunt”. The MPAA threatened the film with a X rating at script stage, though eventually they gave it a R. Shortly afterwards, the film was cut – presumably very heavily – to obtain a US PG rating, and for many years that was the only version of the film available. Over in the UK, the film ran into the BBFC's known difficulties with drug use in films (see, for example Andy Warhol's Trash) and they banned it outright. They passed it uncut in 1974, though a 1987 VHS release lost 57 seconds of “instructional” drugtaking. A previous DVD release from ILC Prime in 2002 (reviewed for this site here by Raphael Pour-Hashemi) was passed uncut, as is this new edition.

Jerry Schatzberg (born 1927) was a late starter as a film director, having previously had a career as a photographer. He made his feature debut in 1970 with the now little-seen Puzzle of a Downfall Child, also photographed by Holender, which is MIA on DVD on both sides of the Atlantic. Schatzberg's name tends not to come up when talking about US film directors who began their careers in the 1970s and a reputation for modishness and pretentiousness tends to dog him. However, after Panic he made a Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Scarecrow (also with Al Pacino). He went on to make the country music movie Honeysuckle Rose, directed Meryl Streep in The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Morgan Freeman to his first Oscar nomination in Street Smart, and more recently directed the Harold Pinter-scripted Reunion. There's possibly not much cohesion in that filmography, and a few gaps in time between films, and he wasn't the only 70s director seemingly adrift in the following decade. But, from those of the above that I have seen, that's still a solid body of work.

Schatzberg had some opposition to casting Al Pacino, as at thirty with only one previous feature behind him, he was thought too old for the role. However, Pacino was eventually cast, and he's in full Method mode here, though not without a vulnerability and humour that draws Jenny to him. (Schatzberg tends to overemphasise the latter by cutting to reaction shots of Jenny laughing, almost as if to add a human laugh track, not quite trusting us to find him funny.) It was certainly a performance that gained him attention: Francis Coppola viewed footage from it before casting Pacino in The Godfather.

However, the character on which the film turns is Jenny, and second-billed Kitty Winn gives a performance that's quite the match of Pacino's. If Bobby is vulnerable, then Jenny is fragile too and her final act is not so much a betrayal as a desperate act of love. Winn was twenty-six when she made this film and she won Best Actress at Cannes for this performance. (The Academy completely bypassed this film.) She went on to feature in The Exorcist and Exorcist II: The Heretic but has not acted in a cinema feature since 1978, with only a handful of television roles afterwards. Family may well have been a reason for giving up acting, but on this evidence it's the cinema's loss.


The Panic in Needle Park is released by Second Sight on a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

The previous release from ILC Prime was 4:3 open-matte, but this DVD is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. This is an intentionally gritty, grainy film, shot on fast film and long lenses on the streets of New York. The skintones are more heightened, with an orange-ish cast, than you would see nowadays, but that's characteristic of films of this time and the filmstock used. This won't be the prettiest film in your collection, but I've no reason to doubt that it looks as the film was intended to look. A comparison follows: Second Sight disc first, ILC Prime disc next.

The mono soundtrack is rough in places, no doubt much of it recorded live, but again I've no doubt that's intentional. I didn't have undue difficulty following it, but even so it's a pity that no subtitles have been provided.

There are two extras. “Panic in the Streets of New York” (24:20) is an interview with Jerry Schatzberg and Adam Holender. Schatzberg describes how he moved from photography into cinema and was not expecting to make another film until he was approached to direct Panic. If he had gone with actors who were under consideration, this film might have starred Robert De Niro and Mia Farrow. Holender talks about how he came to the city from Poland and fell in love with the place, eventually finding work, and he describes how he and Schatzberg made the film. The latter concedes that his films are not for wide audiences, but they do still have one.

The second featurette, “Writers in Needle Park” (8:52) is an interview with Joan Didion. She talks about how she and her late husband John Gregory Dunne and Dominick Dunne (his brother, the film's producer) optioned James Mills's book. Writing the film was a learning process for the two, as it was their first screenplay. Researching the film, in one of the more dangerous parts of Manhattan, was an eye-opener, as can well be imagined. The film was sold to the studios as “Romeo and Juliet on junk”.

The previous release featured the theatrical trailer, but this is not carried over to this edition.

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