Palatable: The Panic in Needle Park

The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Written by James Mills, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion
Produced by Dominick Dunne, Roger M. Rothstein
Starring Kitty Winn, Al Pacino, Alan Vint, Richard Bright, Kiel Martin, Michael McClanathan, Warren Finnerty, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Raul Julia
No PSA, educational short or after school special yet produced has matched the gruesome verisimilitude of this monitory classic. From a failed relationship with her former inamorato (Julia) and the traumatically unprofessional abortion to which it culminated, a jaded, ailing, aimless miss (Winn) rebounds into the sphere of a charming drug dealer and petty thief (Pacino), who shares with her a mutual affection and appetite for heroin that she readily adopts. Their complete immersion (with the audience) into a decisive, dehumanizing, sordid stupor dependent on every critical, forthcoming fix provokes degradation, disloyalties and disasters, draining from them both love and liveliness to leave a relationship first radiantly adoring a vacant and toughened husk. Mills’ graphically harrowing, bipartite, photographic exposé on narcotic subculture published in Life constituted the basis for his novel fictionalizing the notorious lifestyles of addicts who congregated regularly at Verdi Square and Sherman Square in Manhattan’s upper west side; after Dominick Dunne purchased the book’s filmic rights from Avco Embassy to extend his cinematic career, his brother John and famed sister-in-law Didion aptly adapted the realism of its terse dialogue and sickening squalor to a script as fit for cinéma vérité as any realized during the begrimed blossom of New Hollywood. Schatzberg’s own career as a top-flight photographer is evinced in his compositional expertise and dispassionate manner. A broad latitude accorded his players sunk his debut feature of a year anterior, the handsomely crafted but dramatically inert Puzzle of a Downfall Child. In their leading premieres, Pacino and Winn flourish for Schatzberg where Faye Dunaway flailed, so perfectly, personably plausible that certain inobservant theatergoers mistook this gritty fiction for a documentary. From his junkie’s disarming sweetness to raging desperation, Pacino hasn’t a sour note in him to spoil this first great performance, itself quietly overshadowed at every turn by Winn’s wide-eyed vulnerability, best expressed in silent shots yet brimming with laconic import. Of course, this success was followed by decades of his superstardom and her cult renown on stage and screen. Bright shone in sleazy roles paired with or without everyone’s favorite diminutive Sicilian, here credibly scummy as Pacino’s brother, who’d sell his family or anyone else’s for diacetylmorphinic respite. A half-century since it’s launched two fine celebrities, no other movie (certainly not Aronofsky’s clownish, grossly overestimated Requiem for a Dream) so vividly pictures the vile vitiation heroin afflicts upon one’s morals, mind and body.

Author: rbuchanan

I'm an author, lexicographer, cacophonist, ailurophile, bibliophile, cinephile, logophile, inveterate aggregator, dedicated middlebrow, incurable switch-hitter, incontestable babe, borderline narcissist, weirdly semi-Mediterranean prairie octoroon and alliterative anastrophe addict. My personality type is superlative INTJ.

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