The Panic in Needle Park

Hey, you know that film with Al Pacino and Richard Bright? No, the other one.

Before he was Michael Corleone, and Richard Bright was his lieutenant Al Neri in The Godfather, Al Pacino had his breakthrough role in the 1971 film adaptation of James Mills’ The Panic in Needle Park. Mills was an associate editor at LIFE Magazine, and his book was a novelization of an article he wrote for LIFE in 1965 on the world of junkies in New York City. (The book now commands high prices on the used market, but you can read his original article here.)

Needle Park in 1965. Photo credit: LIFE Magazine.

“Needle Park” was a nickname for Sherman Square in Manhattan, at the intersection of Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and West 70th Street. As the heading of Mills’ article tells it, in language almost certainly inspired by the then-popular writings of William Burroughs, “Junkies, Johns, and homosexuals fill the benches of Needle Park – while the squares, completely oblivious to the world of the addict, rush past.

In fact, Burroughs explained the concept of a “panic” in an interview with Victor Bockris some years later:

“In the old days the price of heroin was manipulated like any other commodity price. Someone comes into Morocco, buys up all the sugar, puts it in the warehouse and takes it off the market. There are sugar riots in Tangier. When it comes back on the market it comes back at an increased price. And they’ve pulled the same thing with heroin here again and again and again. It’s known as a panic. Suddenly there’s no heroin anywhere that can be bought and the junkies are all walking around to doctors, trying to get the stuff from them …. But the panic never goes on long enough for people to really get off. It goes on for about a week and then the stuff comes back at double the price.”

Mills and photographer Bill Eppridge spent three months living with a young couple named John and Karen who lived in, or rather around, Needle Park. As Mills explained, “Junkies hang around Needle Park because it is surrounded by cheap hotels, needed by addict prostitutes; because three blocks away, a short walk for a sick junkie, are respectable neighborhoods which are good for burglary and ‘cracking shorts’ – breaking into cars; and because, probably, a long time ago someone started selling dope there and the area just got to be known as a good place to make a connection …”

One remarkable thing about John and Karen is how clean cut they look in Eppridge’s photographs. Compared to the junkies of the grunge nineties or the hippie late sixties, they look practically like upstanding citizens, good clean cut young people.

Photo credit: LIFE Magazine

The transition from the Kennedy sixties to the hippie sixties – Bill Eppridge is also the photographer who took the iconic last photograph of Robert Kennedy as he lay dying after being shot – is apparent in the contrast between John and Karen and their onscreen versions, Bobby and Helen. It’s a bit like watching some of the characters in Mad Men go from their Season One and Two personas to their Season Six and Seven looks.

In one scene, we see Bobby playing stickball in the street with some of the locals, while other people watch from their windowsills above. It’s an iconic image, heavily associated with the heyday of Italian communities in the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-twentieth century, used to good effect in other films like A Bronx Tale. But in Needle Park, one has the feeling of seeing this neighborhood tradition on its last legs, as a junk sick batter clumsily swings and misses, spinning round and falling to the ground, while onlookers, now dressed in the drab fashion of the late sixties and early seventies, look on with laughter or indifference.

The film opens with a shot of Helen, played by a young Kitty Winn, on the subway, clinging to the pole like a frightened little girl, pained and overwhelmed by her surroundings. One’s first impression is that she’s junk sick, but that is not the cause of her malaise. Rather, we find out that she has just had an abortion. Her boyfriend, played by Raul Julia, could not even be bothered to accompany her to the doctor’s office. Helen, after a stint in the hospital for post-abortion complications, is picked up by Bobby, a smooth-talking, happy-go-lucky young junkie thief. On their first “date,” Bobby steals a television set from a repair van and walks it over to a pawn shop to exchange it for cash.

Bobby and Helen fall in love, or into something like it. It starts out good enough, with lunch and laughter in Central Park, or in Needle Park cafeterias, and strolls through the city that remind one of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on The Freewheelin’ cover. Helen learns that Bobby is an addict – he tells her he’s only “chipping,” but that quickly becomes not the case – and Bobby introduces her to his world of Needle Park, with its aforementioned cast of characters. It doesn’t take much to see that this story simply cannot end well – and yet every generation produces a new crop of people who seem to think that, somehow, they will be able to make it work.

Needle Park in the film, looking much the same as it did five years earlier in LIFE.

From a purely visual and historical perspective, the film is a gem of small-time, gritty locations from old NYC, especially the interiors of the little diners and cafes where Bobby and Helen spend much of their time. One can’t help but be reminded of Jack Kerouac’s descriptions of the all-night diners on Times Square, where junkies and criminals like Herbert Huncke would hang out.

Richard Bright as Hank

The screenplay, by Joan Didion and Dominick Dunne, gleans a lot of information from the original LIFE article. For example, the character of Bobby’s older brother Hank is based on John’s older brother “Bro,” who makes his living as “the best burglar on the West Side.” They even include the burglary trade secret that he told to Mills – one which would presumably still work in a lot of cases, even today.

The scenes of people shooting dope are so realistic as to be repulsive, and to make one wonder if they are not entirely real. In contrast to the scene of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, coolly shooting up thousand dollar, grade A heroin with his custom works and then cruising around Los Angeles in his classic car, there is nothing romantic about getting high in Needle Park. Even Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, based on the memoirs of James Fogle, ends up romanticizing 1970s junkies, partly just out of a west coast grunge appreciation for the aesthetics of the era.

Very few films convey the depravity and desperation that come to dominate the souls of addicts as well as The Panic in Needle Park. The Basketball Diaries comes close, but isn’t really comparable since it is ultimately a story of the triumph of artistic creation over addiction, the tale of a Rimbaudian Season in Hell. The junkies in Needle Park are not starving artists practicing the “derangement of the senses” – they’re just junkies, like 99.9% of addicts. They are unfortunate people who are scared of others, scared of sensation, and ultimately scared of life. This is summed up in a piece of junkie dialogue recorded in Mills’ article and included in the film: “Do you know what the best high really is? The best high is death. Silence. No feelin’ at all.”

It’s instructive to consider that, at the time of The Panic in Needle Park, Frank Lucas, the drug-dealing ‘hero’ of the 2007 film American Gangster, was flooding New York with heroin. Indeed, in one scene in Needle Park, after Bobby starts working as a drug dealer for a conglomerate of Black and Italian gangsters, we see a drug production room with all the people wearing face masks, just like the one shown in American Gangster – but minus the beautiful, naked women bagging up the goods. It’s a telling contrast between the two films. While American Gangster does have a few scenes showing the devastation wrought by opiate drugs upon the people who become addicted to them, it is mostly a glorification of a drug dealer.

The first major film to portray the world of heroin addiction was the 1955 adaptation of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. While that film has been praised for its attempt to portray the ravages of withdrawal, it nonetheless seems quaint today, perhaps because of the rupture in American culture that occurred in the mid-sixties. In contrast, the kinds of addicts in Needle Park have become perennial, thereby ensuring that the film is as relevant now as it was then.

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