“God help Bobby and Helen,” reads the original poster. “They’re in love in Needle Park.” Helen (Kitty Winn) leans on Bobby (Al Pacino, in his first starring role), arm around his shoulder and eyes downcast; Bobby kisses her cheek. It’s not clear from the still image of the poster if Helen is hanging onto him carefree and in love – a candid shot in motion as she laughs and moves – or if she’s out of it and can barely stand. The film itself answers: both.
That multiplicity is the heart of The Panic in Needle Park (released 50 years ago this week): it’s both a drug story and a love story, not in parallel or even intersecting, but without ever stopping one thing to be the other. It opens with Helen on the subway, crushed by people on all sides, going back to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Marco (Raul Julia, in his film debut). Helen is an aspiring artist who moved to New York from Indiana, and Winn plays her with a constant low-level uneasiness, like she’s never quite sure of where she fits or what she’s supposed to be doing. Roger Greenspun in the New York Times disparagingly said Winn “produces more facial expressions—literally—than the rest of the cast put together,” but her super-expressive face is the film’s engine and its through-line, the thing that everything else moves around.
At the start of the film, she’s just had a back-alley abortion. When she starts haemorrhaging, Marco’s drug dealer shows unexpected care: this is Bobby, a giddy, amiable small-time hustler, who lies his way into the hospital just to see her and make her laugh. It’s obvious why Helen falls for him. Roger Ebert wrote that she “admires his cockiness, his outlaw spirit, his differentness from Fort Wayne, Ind.,” and that’s true, but that’s only part of it. While so much of New York makes her both invisible and painfully out of place – crushed anonymously and uncomfortably in a crowded subway train – Bobby, charismatic and bright Bobby, cocksure where Helen is so uneasy, picks her out, sees her clearly. Marco leaves off-screen, but Bobby never wants to be away from her.
Despite being a dealer, Bobby initially tells Helen he doesn’t use. This lie falls away when Helen finds him shooting heroin while she was asleep, but is replaced by a new lie: that he’s “just chipping,” not an addict but a casual user. But heroin is the centre of Bobby’s life: it’s his social circle, his work, his joy. This means Helen remains at a kind of distance even as Bobby invites her in: she’s perpetually the only sober one at the party. By the time she starts using, it doesn’t come as a surprise to the audience, even if it does to Bobby. He holds her face, looking into her glazed-over eyes, and asks when this happened.
In Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Griffin Dunne’s 2017 documentary about his aunt, Calvin Trillin says that the one-sentence pitch for The Panic in Needle Park – which Didion co-wrote with her husband John Gregory Dunne – was “it’s Romeo and Juliet but they’re junkies.” If that is how the film was pitched, it’s not quite how it turned out. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers who fell in love at first sight but were kept apart by the world; Bobby and Helen are pulled together and apart and back together, like the fates can’t quite make up their mind. Their on-again-off-again but always-and-forever dynamic – where no betrayal, no matter how devastating, no wound no matter how open, trumps the magnetic pull between them – reminds me of Louise Bryant and Jack Reed in Reds (1981), Validimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot (or, if you prefer, Laurel and Hardy), and more than anything, Joe and Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Cinematographer Adam Holender shot both Midnight Cowboy and The Panic in Needle Park, and he brings a similar visual sensibility, particularly to how each film looks at New York. There was a lot of talk at the time of Panic being graphic and extreme – it was even banned in the UK until 1974 – but at fifty years’ distance, what sticks out is its attention to detail and process. It’s not just that it has characters shoot heroin on-screen, it’s the succession of close-ups on the heroin being prepared for their arm and their arm being prepared for the heroin. It’s the cinema verité style and lack of music that makes it feel so grounded and real. Like Midnight Cowboy, it feels like a glimpse to the edge of the world, into a society that operates on the fringe of society, touching it but never becoming part of it.
Gene Siskel called Panic “little more than a traditional love story set in New York’s West Side drug culture,” but it’s precisely that juxtaposition that makes it so compelling. Helen and Bobby’s overlapping but misaligned addictions – when she wants to go to the country, he’s high, when he wants to get clean and out of the city, she’s shooting eighty dollars a day – are the thing that keeps them together and the thing that splits them apart.