Noteworthy for the appearances of many actors at or near the beginning of their film careers, starting with the leads, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who had worked in the theater. Both had minor roles in one film prior to The Panic in Needle Park ... they were effectively unknowns. Coppola used Pacino’s performance here to convince the studio to let him cast the actor as Michael Corleone. Richard Bright, soon to be known as Al Neri from the Godfather movies, is also here in one of his earliest movies, as are actors like Raúl Juliá, Joe Santos, and Paul Sorvino. The screenplay, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was their first. And it was only the second feature directed by Schatzberg, who was (and perhaps still is) known as a photographer who took the picture that became the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
So there’s a lot of talent from before they got famous (Winn may give the best performance ... she won Best Actress at Cannes ... but her last film was in 1978, so she never really “got famous”, she was just that person who was so good in Needle Park). And the talent shows. Pacino and Winn carry the movie. As was so often the case in the early years, Pacino reminds us of Bruce Springsteen at a similar age. Winn’s gradual descent into a junkie’s life is highly regarded to this day. All down the line, the cast feels carefully chosen to climb into the skins of their characters.
Care is also taken to make New York City look “real”. More important, care is taken to make the junkie life look “real”, with detailed sequences of fixing and shooting up, and plenty of junkies asking everyone they meet if they are carrying.
It is so careful, in fact, that it misses some of the messiness of these characters’ lives. Or rather, the messiness looks constructed. There is a distance in the filmmaking, despite the attempt to get in the audience’s faces. Pacino and Winn give convincing portrayals of junkies, but they never convinced me they weren’t performances, which goes against the realist feel of the film.
It is also a very dreary picture, which is perhaps appropriate given the subject matter, but there is none of the humor of the similar Sid and Nancy. That film had more than just junkies, which made their story more heartbreaking. But Pacino’s character is on heroin from the beginning, and Winn’s character is clearly headed down the same trail. The result is a movie that might be “good for us”, and might turn us away from drugs because there is nothing exciting about what we see, but I can’t help wanting more. I wish one of those extras playing junkies had tried to steal one of the movie cameras. It might have seemed spontaneous, and there is nothing spontaneous here.
The Panic in Needle Park is impressive. It is worth seeing for a variety of reasons. But it is far from great. 7/10.