Panic in Needle Park, The
Release Date(s)1971 (June 14, 2016)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Ace photographer turned expert filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 masterpiece The Panic in Needle Park is one of the most exceptionally harrowing movies ever made, from the Twentieth-Century Fox logo (one of the most shocking things in it – this searing cry of despair was a major studio release?!) to the beautifully enigmatic final shot. Even by the standards of the time, it's a rough film, a movie so attuned to suffering that it makes Cassavetes look like Ron Howard. The story of a pair of junkies in love whose romance descends into hell (both figuratively and literally, as the portrait of 1970s New York here is about as bleak as you can get), it’s an uncompromised and uncompromising character study anchored by two of the most remarkable performances that I’ve ever seen on screen.
Those performances are by a pre-Godfather Al Pacino and a pre-Exorcist Kitty Winn, both of whom are incapable of an inauthentic moment. (The fact that in some circles the movie was criticized for being too upscale and fashionable speaks more to professional envy on the part of the actors’ and director’s peers than to any honest reading of the film.) Even after forty-five years of great work by Pacino, his characterization here remains powerful and surprising, and Winn, of course, is even more stunning because she was barely seen on screen before or after – the fact that she didn’t become one of the major actresses of her era is a total mystery. Her and Pacino’s descent, while inevitable, is never predictable or cliché; I have no idea how they achieved their effects or what kind of research they did, but their work in The Panic in Needle Park offers aspiring actors a clinic in how to use one’s physicality to express the most anguished emotional states.
I don’t know how Schatzberg got his effects either, other than the fact that he and cinematographer Adam Holender (doing even better work here than in his other landmark of the era, Midnight Cowboy) used extremely long lenses to isolate their actors in the frame and give them the proper distance to do intimate work – as Schatzberg and Holender reveal on the Blu-ray’s making-of documentary, sometimes they were blocks away from the performers. In keeping with Schatzberg’s background, the photography is rich and detailed, with its own kind of beauty that does nothing to contradict the ugliness of the material.
The gritty nuances are impeccably preserved on the new Twilight Time Blu-ray release, which contains an absolutely flawless transfer – a pristine presentation of flawless source material that captures Holender’s poetically bleak palette in all its cinematic glory. The extras are pretty nifty too: a half-hour documentary packed with interesting production stories told by the director and cinematographer, and a ten-minute interview with legendary screenwriter Joan Didion. The disc continues Twilight Time’s tradition of supplying the score on an isolated track, but this feature is more essential here than usual: composer Ned Rorem’s excellent score was never used for the film (Schatzberg deemed the picture more powerful without music and removed it), but it’s here in its entirety for the first time. It’s the final component of one of the best Blu-ray releases so far this year.
- Jim Hemphill