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Film / The Panic In Needle Park

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The Panic in Needle Park is a 1971 drama film directed by Jerry Schatzberg.

Helen (Kitty Winn) is a young woman from Fort Wayne, Indiana now living in New York City as an aspiring artist. She has already made some bad choices, as the film opens with her returning from an illegal back-alley abortion paid for (cheaply) by her sleazy boyfriend Marco (Raúl Juliá in one of his first movie roles).

While recuperating from her abortion—she eventually has to go to the hospital—she meets Bobby, a heroin dealer (Al Pacino). Bobby is a lot nicer to her than Marco is, and soon they fall in love. Unfortunately Bobby is a heroin addict as well as a dealer, and he drags her down into a nightmare of heroin addiction and despair.

Al Pacino's first starring role; his performance here was what got him the part in The Godfather. Paul Sorvino appears in one scene as a john who called the cops after Helen stole $75 from him. Author Joan Didion co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by James Mills.

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Tropes:

  • Back-Alley Doctor: We don't see whoever gave Helen an abortion but Marco says they owed him a favor. They did a bad job of it, as Helen won't stop bleeding and eventually has to go to the hospital.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The whole movie was shot on location in New York City—filthy alleyways, dingy gray apartments, parks overrun with heroin addicts.
  • Comforting Comforter: Bobby and Helen first bond when he puts a blanket over her at Marco's house, as she lies on the couch suffering from a botched abortion.
  • Downer Beginning: Helen, coming home on the subway alone, in pain after having endured a back-alley abortion.
  • Downer Ending: A low-key version. There's nothing dramatic, nobody overdoses, Bobby doesn't murder Helen. In fact, they get back together at the end, and that is the downer ending, as there's no indication that they will escape the nightmare of drug addiction.
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  • Drugs Are Bad: They are very, very bad!
  • Hero Antagonist: Hotch, the vice cop who leans on Helen to rat out Bobby. Say what you will about the war on drugs, he's only a cop doing his job enforcing the law.
  • Hope Spot: A very brief one. Bobby and Helen talk about getting clean and moving to the country. They take the ferry to Staten Island and buy a cute puppy. But on the way back Bobby insists on shooting up in the bathroom. The dog, left outside on the ferry unescorted, falls into the water and drowns.
  • Implausible Deniability: "I'm not an addict, I'm just chipping," says Bobby the first time Helen watches him shoot up. ("Chipping" being slang for casual heroin use.) He's a hardcore addict.
  • Kick the Dog: After Bobby insists that he and Helen go into a bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry to shoot heroin, the cute puppy they left outside falls off the boat into the water and drowns.
  • Local Hangout: A very dark version of one, Sherman Square, a small park in New York that really was called "Needle Park" in those days. It is a hangout for heroin addicts who commiserate on where to get heroin and how much it's going for. Sometimes they shoot up right there in broad daylight.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: No soundtrack at all, and no incidental music either, emphasizing the mood of realism.
  • Sexiled: A pathetic moment in which Bobby can't come into his own fleabag apartment because Helen is entertaining a john.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Parodied for the only joke in this otherwise unrelentingly grim movie. The person lighting up is a pimply-faced teen who was apparently so bad at the sex that Helen guesses correctly it was his first time. And then he has to take five tries to light the match for his cigarette.
  • Streetwalker
    • First there's Irene, one of the heroin addicts who hangs out in Needle Park, who complains about how she walked up to a john looking for work and got arrested for robbery.
    • Then, predictably, Helen starts doing this herself, as she needs money to feed her heroin addiction.
  • Title Drop: Sort of—there is much talk about the "panic" among the local community of addicts. Recently increased police enforcement has led to a shortage in supply of heroin.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Bobby seems to genuinely care for Helen but he's also a heroin addict, which is why he hits her when she steals his stash.
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