The Panic in Needle Park is basically a modern-day morality tale of decadence and a tragic love story set in New York in the early seventies. Bobby (Al Pacino) a street hustler with a heart oozing with confidence and forward thinking, as he states, “Yesterday was Yesterday, Today is Today”. By chance or fate, he meets Helen (Kitty Winn) whilst selling a little bit of gear to her bohemian artist boyfriend Marco (Raul Julia) at his flat.
Helen is on the couch suffering the aftermath of a back-street abortion which sees her admitted to hospital. Feeling empathy for her and attracted to her beauty, Bobby visits her in hospital. A bond is formed, due to the natural rules of dating with an element of on the rebound, as Marco has left town. When Bobby invites Helen to stay with him she readily accepts, even though she has nowhere else to go, she does find Bobby a charmer.
At first, it is a wayward but loving situation, Helen maybe a little naive but is not blind to the fact that Bobby is a frequent user of drugs, and will beg, steal or borrow to make a dollar. It would be fair to say that she is fascinated by Bobby the bad boy, and his circle of colourful characters including his brother Hank (Richard Bright), who dresses impeccably whilst earning a living as a burglar, the Raffles of New York. In fact, throughout the film, there is a big emphasis on clothes. Even though Bobby and his associates might be on the fringe of society they take immense pride in their appearance, which does add to the film’s appeal.
There is then a shortage of heroin on the streets (The Panic) which leads all the users, including Bobby, to take any legal or illegal substance to stay high. Bobby’s spiral into drug abuse makes him neglect Helen and maybe in a way to get his attention, to upset him or just plain curiosity, she injects heroin for the first time. The moment the needle pricks Helen’s beautiful and healthy skin, you know the worst is to come.
A series of misadventures follow, Bobby goes to prison for burglary with his brother and in turn goes cold turkey. Helen’s drug dependency increases and to feed her habit, she turns to prostitution. With their relationship now strained, the only way to go is that of betrayal, in order to save themselves from the other.
The Panic in Needle Park is far from an anti-drug film, but a film that focuses on the loneliness faced by the individual in The Big Apple and what they will do to find solace, which has been illustrated by other classic and iconic films set in New York, made in the late sixties and early seventies such as Midnight Cowboy, Rosemary’s Baby, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. All films that make the viewer empathize with the lead character, regardless of their shortcomings, as they try to make sense of their life amongst of the yellow cabs, hot dogs, Madison Avenue and all that goes with New York.
The storyline and the actors are enhanced by the fly on the wall camera work, which documents their sentiment and situations perfectly, as the viewer is taken stage by stage of Bobby’s and Helen’s affair and their downfall. The Panic in Needle Park is a daring and warm film, not just because it was the film that helped to launch Pacino, but for its poignant deliverance and impact, a timeless classic that should be viewed with respect and understanding.
Check out Matteo Sedazzari's Novel Here - A Crafty Cigarette - Tales of a Teenage Mod - Foreword by John Cooper Clarke