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.
The intersection at Broadway and 72nd Street on New York’s West Side is officially known as Sherman Square. To heroin addicts it’s Needle Park. The “panic” the title refers to is the period of time when there isn’t any drugs on the streets.
The 1970’s is regarded by many as the last great age in American cinema. It really began in 1967 with the release of Bonnie and Clyde, and would start it’s decline in 1975 with the release of Jaws, and the nail in the coffin would come two years later with the release of Star Wars; which gave birth to the Blockbuster era that we still currently reside in.
During the 60’s, Hollywood films weren’t making as much money as they used to, and more and more movies were losing money at the box-office. The studio chiefs simply did not know what to put out to make money, and basically gave control over to the first generation of film school students. Some of these students were Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah and Francis Ford Coppola.
This film is fairly ambiguous in its storytelling, which is something many people will hate, but is something I quite like. Contrary to many films of today, many of the films from the 70’s do not spell everything out for you. This film can definitely be frustrating for some as it’s done in a more documentary style; sometimes coming into scenes late and not outright explaining what was missed. And much like what a true documentary should be (read: not anything done by Michael Moore), it doesn’t pass judgment on its characters. It just presents the characters and their situations and let’s the audience determine how to feel.
The film opens like that with Helen (Kitty Winn) riding the subway back from Harlem and going back to her boyfriend Marco’s (Raul Julia) house. It’s here where she meets Bobby (Al Pacino) who has come by to collect some money. In the next scene she is admitting herself into a hospital, explaining the she is bleeding and has “already gone through 3 pads.” Now whether or not she went to Harlem to score drugs or turn a trick is hard to figure out on the first viewing, and why exactly she’s bleeding is just as difficult. Did she miscarry? Was she raped? If she turned a trick, did it turn nasty? I’m under the assumption that she turned a trick to score for Macro, but none of this is explained in great detail, but is presented straight down the line.
Bobby comes to visit her and takes her under his wing. Pacino has so much charisma in these opening scenes that he’s almost coming off the screen. This was his first leading feature film part, and his performance is one that has to be seen to be believed. However, the bedrock that holds the picture together is done by Kitty Winn, who plays her character with an innocence and naiveté that is essential to making this film believable.
Bobby brings Helen into the world of Needle Park and we see and meet the characters that inhabit this community. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone is doing what they can for their next fix. This is where Kitty Winn’s performance is essential. She gives us a feeling of having loneliness in the past, and is grateful to have friends and belong to something; despite her not using drugs. Without this performance, we would never believe that someone would stick around in this situation. The direction here is a key factor as well. In one sequence, Helen wakes up and Bobby is nowhere to be found. She searches the small one bedroom apartment for him, then takes to the streets seeking him out. This entire sequence is shot in high angle long shots, implying that she’s lost in this world without him. The camera then goes back to eye level as she finally catches up with him, implying she’s now comfortable again. This is a brilliant piece of non flashy directing that serves the story and makes you feel the despair that she feels. This sequence also serves to show one of the themes in the movie; that these two simply need each other.
Eventually, Helen tries the drugs, and gets hooked. Things now go from bad to worse for the couple as there’s little money between them (being all spent on drugs) and the both of them go on a downward spiral as the usage goes from casual to habitual. The panic is now setting in as fewer and fewer narcotics are available. Helen becomes a prostitute to either pay for the drugs, or trading it for the drugs, and as much as Bobby doesn’t like it, he knows that it’s the only way to get what they so desperately crave. At one part of the film, Helen even sleeps with Bobby’s brother Hank (Richard Bright) while Bobby’s in prison on a robbery gone wrong which was set up by Hank. Bobby is furious and cuts off ties to his brother, but can’t help but take Helen back.
Helen mentions a few times how she would like to get clean and live in the country. In one sequence, they go to Staten Island and buy a puppy. On the way back, Bobby wants to get high on the ferry and Helen wants to wait until they get the puppy back home. He convinces her to not wait, and they go into the washroom to do their drugs. Helen comes out in time to watch the puppy run off the ferry into the cold water. This scene is heartbreaking, but in another great stroke of directing, it is more than it seems. The dog and sequence both serve as a metaphor for Kitty’s life and her addiction. Yes, the dog running off the ferry is very sad, but what it represents makes it heartbreaking.
The film continues on as they both go up in life a bit, just to crash down even further until we reach the ending; which is more ambiguous than the beginning.
Bobby gets sent to jail because he began dealing, and Helen ratted him out to the local undercover/ plains-clothes cop (Alan Vint) so she won’t get sent to jail and can continue rotting on the street putting junk in her arm. He gets out of jail, is greeted by Helen, and they walk arm in arm out of frame.
Many people will not like this ending because it doesn’t really tie the story up. Instead it leaves you to form your own conclusions as to the fate of the characters. This holds true to the documentary style that is present throughout this film. The use of long lenses on the streets are done beautifully to give the audience a voyeuristic feel and to bring us into this harrowing tale. The long takes and invisible editing also help sell the effect that we’re not watching a movie, but watching other people’s lives. There’s also no music at all in this film, just the sounds of New York.
And then of course, there’s the drug scenes, which are very realistic. Needles actually puncture veins and the camera doesn’t shy away from it. Instead of getting out of these scenes quickly, Schatzberg lingers on the scene as people are passed out, others are shooting up, and others are having a meaningless conversation. The scenes just don’t feel right, and indeed they shouldn’t. Schatzberg does a great job of translating this odd situation to us, and to make us feel like we’re in Helen’s shoes.
This movie is a top grade character study that shows addicts in a realistic light. For a group that is so looked down upon in society, this film does a great job of not judging them, nor sympathizing with them. This film shows you the situation, and lets you make up your mind about it. It makes you think, wonder, and question, which is always a more rewarding movie experience then being spoon fed what the director wants you to feel.