The Panic in Needle Park

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The Panic In Needle Park
Original movie poster for the film The Panic in Needle Park.jpg
Original poster (with Ontario Censor Board classification)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Produced by Dominick Dunne
Screenplay by Joan Didion
John Gregory Dunne
Based on The Panic in Needle Park
by James Mills
Starring Al Pacino
Kitty Winn
Alan Vint
Richard Bright
Raúl Juliá
Kiel Martin
Paul Sorvino
Music by Ned Rorem (Isolated score)
Cinematography Adam Holender
Edited by Evan Lottman
Gadd Productions Corp.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • July 13, 1971 (1971-07-13)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,645,000[1]

The Panic in Needle Park is a 1971 American romantic drama film directed by Jerry Schatzberg and starring Al Pacino in his second film appearance.[2] The screenplay was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, adapted from the 1966 novel by James Mills.

The film portrays life among a group of heroin addicts who hang out in "Needle Park" (then-nickname of Sherman Square on Manhattan's Upper West Side near 72nd Street and Broadway).[3] The film is a love story between Bobby (Pacino), a young addict and small-time hustler, and Helen (Kitty Winn), a restless woman who finds Bobby charismatic. She becomes an addict, and life goes downhill for them both as their addictions worsen, eventually leading to a series of betrayals.


In New York City, Helen returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Marco, after enduring an unhygienicand inept abortion. Helen becomes ill and Bobby, an amiable small-time drug dealer to whom Marco owes money, shows unexpected gentleness and concern for Helen. Helen considers returning to her dysfunctional family, but moves in with Bobby, and when she finds him taking drugs, he explains that he is not an addict, but only uses a little.

At Sherman Square, nicknamed Needle Park for the drug addicts who use it as a hangout to get drugs and get high, Bobby introduces Helen to various acquaintances, including his brother Hank, who burgles for a living. Helen witnesses the intricate ritual of addicts shooting up heroin.

Bobby and Helen are eventually evicted from their apartment and move into a sleazier one. After Bobby asks her to deliver money to one of his dealers, Helen is arrested and one of the officers, Detective Hotch, explains to Helen about what it's like when there is a panic in Needle Park. A panic is when the drug supply on the street is low and addicts begin to turn each other into the police in return for favors. The officer unexpectedly releases Helen, who returns to Bobby, who begins to use drugs more heavily. Helen eventually begins to shoot up, too.

Bobby soon realizes Helen is using and he proposes marriage to her. Hank asks what they will live on and offers Bobby work as a burglar, to which Helen objects and insists that she will get a job. However, Helen quickly quits her new waitress job. Just before Bobby is to assist Hank in a burglary, he overdoses. Hank is angry with Bobby for jeopardizing his plans, but he allows Bobby to assist him on another night, during which Bobby is arrested. While he is in jail, Helen finds it harder to get drugs and has sex with Hank for heroin. When Bobby is released, he and Helen have a big fight.

Bobby persuades Santo, a major drug dealer, to let him handle distribution in Needle Park, while Helen turns to prostitution for fast money. After Bobby distributes Santo's drugs, Needle Park residents are happy to have a reliable source. As Helen's health deteriorates from increasing drug use, their relationship suffers, and Hotch keeps an eye on her. When Helen and one of her customers are detained, Hotch asks the arresting officer not to book her, as he needs her for something he is planning.

Helen's mother writes to her, inviting Helen to meet family friends who are visiting the city. Reluctantly, Helen agrees, dressing carefully to hide the track marks on her arms. Instead of meeting the friends, she picks up a customer, who Bobby scares away when he finds them together. Realizing they have been through a lot, they take the ferry to the countryside and buy a puppy. On the return trip, they discuss making a fresh start by moving away from Needle Park, but Bobby refuses and convinces Helen to shoot up in the mens room. When the puppy begins to whine, Bobby puts it outside the restroom, and when Helen discovers the dog missing, she finds it just before it falls off the end of the ferry into the water.

Helen goes to see her ex-boyfriend, Marco, but soon returns to Bobby to steal drugs from him. Needing to get high, Helen goes to a doctor claiming she needs drugs for pain. Aware that she is an addict, the doctor gives her a few samples and tells her never to return. She is arrested for selling some pills to children, during which Hotch warns her about the dangers of the women's prison. Knowing that Bobby can lead them to Santo, he offers Helen a deal if she will help them to catch Bobby in the act of picking up a drug shipment.

In the next two weeks, Hotch approaches Helen several times, reminding her of her pending trial. Depressed, she increases her drug use, but finally agrees to help the police. One night Helen and Hotch watch a squad of policemen apprehend Bobby, who is in possession of a large amount of heroin. When Bobby spots Helen on the street, he yells at her, and months later, when he is released from jail, Helen waits for him at the gate. Although his first impulse is to rebuff her, he turns to her and asks her "Well?", and together they walk away.[4]



The film was based on a novel by James Mills, which had been based on Mills's two-part pictorial essay in the 26 February and March 5, 1965 issues of Life magazine. According to a November 1967 Hollywood Reporter news item, film rights for the novel were purchased by Avco Embassy Pictures and, according to a March 1969 Variety news item, the film rights were later bought by producer Dominick Dunne, whose brother and sister-in-law, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion wrote the screenplay.[5]

As noted in the onscreen credits, the film was shot entirely in New York City. According to the film's studio production notes, portions were shot at Needle Park and the Upper West Side area of New York City, at Riverside Park, in a New York City prison and hospital ward, on the Staten Island Ferry, and in the East Village. The studio notes reported that makeup man Herman Buchman studied the "track" marks on the arms of hospital patients and victims in morgues and achieved an authentic look for the actors by using a liquid called Flexible Collodian. In scenes in which actors appear to inject themselves, a registered nurse was on set, serving as a technical advisor.[5]

Originally, Ned Rorem was set to compose the score for the film until it was decided that in order to set the atmosphere, no music was to be used in the film (his isolated and unused score is included as a special feature in the Blu-ray), much of the film instead features cinéma vérité-style footage. It is believed to be the first mainstream film to feature actual drug injection.[6]

Didion and Dunne visited Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, during the recording of the album Waiting For The Sun as he was considered for the role of Bobby, but went with Pacino instead.[7]


With the film's release in 1971, some European film boards/classifications such as Germany gave it an 'X' rating for its harsh and realistic view of drug use and violence, and it was banned completely in the UK until 1974. Many of these boards' decisions should overlap the film's qualities for some decades, as other works of important directors were put into this just at the same time: Hodges' Get Carter, Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (all of '71) as well as John Boorman's Deliverance one year later. The beginning 1970s are therefore often cited to be the significant phase of the 'X' rated movies concerning works which were not necessarily appointed by genre affiliations.[8]

The Panic in Needle Park marked Al Pacino's first starring feature film role, although it was neither his nor Kitty Winn's feature film debut, as the studio notes and some reviews erroneously reported.[5]

Home Media[edit]

The film was released for the first time on Blu-ray through Twilight Time on June 14, 2016 in their usual limitation to producing only 3,000 copies.


The film received generally positive reviews from critics with a fresh 80% percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert in his review gave the film a 3.5 out of 4 stars and said "Movies about drug addiction are also, sometimes, hung up on the fetishes and compulsions surrounding drugs. If we get a closeup of one needle penetrating the flesh in "The Panic in Needle Park," we get half a dozen. This is too many; the physical reality interrupts our identification with fictional characters. The first actor in "Panic" to stick the needle in, in closeup, is Warren Finnerty, who was doing the same scene 10 years earlier in Shirley Clarke's "The Connection."[9]


Looking northward on Broadway toward 72nd Street in Verdi Square, New York City. The New York City Subway's 72nd Street station house can be seen at left.

For her portrayal of Helen, Winn won the Best Actress Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. The film and its director, Jerry Schatzberg, were also nominated for the Palme d'Or.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p256
  2. ^ Ciment, Michel. "Biography". Jerry Schatzberg's Official Website. 
  3. ^ Greenspun, Roger (1971-07-14). "Screen: Schatzberg's 'The Panic in Needle Park'; Drug Addicts Trapped on Upper West Side Kitty Winn and Pacino Are Ill-Fated Lovers". The New York Times.  Filmmuseum Berlin - Deutsche Kinemathek
  4. ^ "Tuner Classic Movies: Plot Synopsis". Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c "TCM: Notes". 
  6. ^ Furek, Maxim W. (July/August 2007). “Heroin in the Cinema: The Glorification of the Junkie”. Counselor Magazine, The Magazine for Addiction Professionals.
  7. ^ "The Doors' Waiting For The Sun". 8 November 2011. 
  8. ^ Jung, Stefan. "The Panic in Needle Park - Die Zerstörung des eigenen Selbst". 
  9. ^ Roger Ebert (January 1, 1971). "The Panic in Needle Park (1971)". Roger 
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Panic in Needle Park". Retrieved 2009-04-12. 

External links[edit]