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Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio,
This movie is a stark portrayal of life among a group of heroin addicts who hang out in "Needle Park" in New York City. Played against this setting is a low-key love story between Bobby, a young addict and small-time hustler, and Helen, a homeless girl who finds in her relationship with Bobby the stability she craves. She becomes addicted too, and life goes downhill for them both as their addiction deepens, eventually leading to a series of betrayals. But, in spite of it all, the relationship between Bobby and Helen endures. Written by
E. Schofield <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A romance that will pierce your heart ... literally ...
Addiction is such an incomprehensible phenomenon to those who don't endure it, that making a film which portrays with such a gripping realism, not only the devastating effects but the reasons that push people to destroy themselves, is an accomplishment that deserves respect. "The Panic in Needle Park", from the director Jerry Schatzberg is not only one of the most significant films of the 'New Hollywood' era but a slice of New York's early 70's life with an undeniable documentary value.
The film follows the lives of heroin-addicted people in the intersection between Broadway and the 72nd, the only place outside Harlem, where you could get the drug : Sherman Square aka 'Needle Park' during a severe panic, which, in the business jargon, refers to a period where there's no supply. Schatzberg's direction is austere : no music, no innovation à la Martin Scorsese, only a camera following a bunch of young people in New York streets, confined claustrophobic houses, hospitals, sordid bedrooms but allowing us sometimes to breath in a green area. The camera works as the eye of the viewer and I challenge those who'd doubt the authenticity of the images not to cover their eyes during the close-ups, where you can witness a needle piercing a vein and injecting the stuff and all the immediate effects : rolling eyes, turning heads, licked lips, the horrific graphicness making you wonder why so much people fall in that spiral.
To answer this question, the movie needed to detach itself from its own tone, and provides a story; it did even better with a romance, and quite a poignant and realistic one. The characterization of Bobby and Helen is admirably handled by both Kitty Winn and Al Pacino, in his first starring role : you can see in very touching, yet subtle moments, the chemistry growing between them. Bobby is so cocky and fun, you know he overacts his own personality in order to seduce Helen, and he's so over the top, Helen can't resist. And whenever you doubt Helen's feelings, just look at her eyes, they tell everything and Al's eyes don't say less : in the most poignant and defining scene, Bobby plays baseball with a group of kids in the street, then turns a sudden look at Helen, and realizes she took it. A long and powerful silence follows and his reaction is a love gesture that definitely places these two characters in a warm place inside our hearts. Bobby understands Helen's act less as curiosity than a deliberate will to join his way of life, so both could be in the same wavelength. It's a tragic declaration of love, in the same vein than the booze-driven romance between Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in "Days of Wine and Roses", another great film about addiction.
Of course, the romance takes a sordid course, leading us to the discover the junkies' underworld and get all its tricks. And you know the realism works when it mirrors some of your own experiences. The film reminded me of my current addiction to the water-pipe, or oriental pipe, and how the meticulous preparation provides a sort of pre-excitement before the consumption. I take time to clean the water jar, to insert the body, to use some Kleenex to fix the hose correctly. It may sound ridiculous but this is what addiction is about, habits, and rituals that elevate you to early steps of pleasure until the final and rewarding pay-off. And one day, I broke the bowl, I literally panicked and had to go at night to buy a new one because I needed it. Addiction's effects reveal to be more vicious when the stuff is missing, driving you crazy to an obsessive point, and there's nothing that can stop you once you have it hooked on mind. But as a neutral documentary, the film is not about judging, condemning or even curing the psychological spiral of addiction but simply understanding it. Understanding why people rat, why women become hookers, why some crimes are committed. Addiction inevitably leads to a destructive alienation, where even death doesn't scare. Every junky accepts this eventuality, and when one is having an overdose, there's a disturbing mix of humanity when the friends are trying to awake him and hostility when the house locater who doesn't want troubles.
Bobby, Helen and the others are all regular people, with families, babies, living in lively neighborhoods, but they're caught in a horrific spiral that undermines any attempt of regular romance and the relationship between Bobby and Helen survives to all the difficulties, because their relationships is not totally disinterested : Helen can get the heroin from Bobby, and if he's in jail, she can get it from his brother Hank, played by Richard Bright. And if Bobby needs money, he can get it from Helen's hooking. Talk about a sordid romance's basis, but the relationship is no less sincere and powerful in the way it makes us feel sorry for two pitiful and endearing characters. And the acting is crucial here, Kitty Winn, who won the Cannes Award for Best Actress, is heart-breaking in this role, as her eyes, looks, cries and laughs convey the mix of vulnerability of a girl who still wants to be legitimate, and the toughness of the drug-addict who finally knows the ropes. Al Pacino delivers one of his most brilliant performances as Bobby, the street-wise, goofy dealer, who completes Helen's introversion. Both actors are wonderful, and a honorable mention to Bright who illuminates his scenes, with a character so unlike the laconic Al Neri.
Yes, it's hard to believe both Pacino and Bright, would work together again in one of the greatest movies ever : "The Godfather", so if not for the beautiful romance and the extraordinary portrayal of New York's heroin-addiction, the movie launched one of the most successful movie careers and just for Al Pacino, I say : thank you, Mr. Schatzberg !
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