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June 21, 2007

Panic in Needle Park

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Jerry Schatzberg -1971
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Especially in my first few years of living in New York City in the early Seventies, I had my own panic about the area known as "Needle Park". The closest I came to that neighborhood was when I took subway rides to the Upper West Side, for visits to the New Yorker or Thalia theaters. Just as I avoided being caught in or around West 72nd Street, I also avoided seeing Panic in Needle Park at the time it was released.

Growing up reading the Sunday New York Times, I actually knew a little bit about Al Pacino, having seen a photo of him from one of the plays he did, written by Israel Horovitz. Seeing him in his first starring role in a film though did clarify why Hollywood studio executives were resistant about casting Pacino in films. Even Jerry Schatzberg does Pacino no favors with framing that emphasized Pacino's appearance as a pasty faced runt, dwarfed by Raul Julia, and barely the same height as Kitty Winn.

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This in one film that would have benefitted from a commentary track from Jerry Schatzberg and/or screenplay writer Joan Didion. The narrative is filled with ellipses, while the acting appears improvised. There is also no music sound track which also adds to the appearance of naturalism. Panic in Needle Park often looks like it was shot off the cuff, but I suspect that much of the spontaneous look of the film was well planned.

The film sheds no new light on drug addiction, nor does it make any kind of judgment on its characters whose lives are a series of bad choices informed by the overwhelming need for heroin. The film is probably of greater interest in seeing Pacino in his first major film role, as well as watching early appearances by Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino. Schatzberg appears to have been smitten by Kitty Winn as indicated by the many close ups of her face. One of the best things about Panic in Needle Park is simply watching the faces of a cast of primarily New York based actors who appear to have been filmed without make-up. What may be most amazing about Panic in Needle Park is to look back, knowing that this film came from a major studio. Even today, the so-called independents would be nervous about making a film as downbeat or as marginally experimental.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 21, 2007 10:22 AM


OH crud! i just typed a nice comment and as soon as i submitted it it come up blank! Please tell me it worked properly? I do not want to sumit it again if i do not have to! Either the blog bugged out or i am just stuipd :), the latter doesnt surprise me lol.

Posted by: Lester Kratochvil at December 29, 2009 09:12 AM