Over black screen we hear a subway car, the rumbling of the tracks fading in and out like a wave. We hold like this for close to two minutes as the credits pass by. Then the first image. A woman, desperate look on her face, grasping onto a pole in the middle of a packed subway carriage. As it reaches the next stop and the carriage empties out, she moves to a newly vacant seat. Moving is difficult, she’s in pain. She looks close to tears.
We cut to an apartment and a disinterested, emotionless man in a paint speckled shirt barely looks at the woman from the train. “Hurt?” he asks. “It hurt,” she replies. She’s just had a “free scrape”, an illegal abortion. The actress is Kitty Winn, a familiar face from The Exorcist franchise, whose soft-spoken emotionally sensitive performance in The Panic in Needle Park would seem to predict as meteoric a rise as her co-star, a young mop-haired pre-Godfather Al Pacino.
The Panic in Needle Park, directed by fashion-photographer-turned-film-director Jerry Schatzberg, is a raw, unflinching look at heroin addiction in 1970’s New York City. Unlike the later Trainspotting, it doesn’t rely on stylistic freneticism to paint its picture, but instead it depicts all the grit and dirt of its world completely straight. It isn’t cruel, it’s not judgmental, but it is unforgiving and it is at more than one time difficult to watch.
It is a blessing then that the actors that carry us through the experience give us some of the strongest performances of that half of the decade. Al Pacino is as charming and singular here as he is in the Dog Day Afternoons and The Godfather Part Twos the decade would later give us, and in Kitty Winn we’ve an almost unfair glimpse at what could have been a stellar career if only she’d been given the right parts.
But The Panic in Needle Park was not only the first film to star the future Michael Corleone but also the first film written by journalist/novelist couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Joan Didion at this time was already something of a literary celebrity, a novelist as well as one of the most defining and distinctive journalistic voices of the era. Her biting, anxious and seemingly effortlessly cool voice was perfect for the oncoming New Hollywood era and you only need to read an essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album to realise that it’s a shame there weren’t more films to her name.
This is a film that makes me think maybe Robert Towne was onto something when he said that screenwriting is closer to what a journalist does than to what a novelist does. It’s a film that makes me wish more journalists would have written screenplays. What would a film written by George Plimpton, or Joe McGinniss, or Gay Talese look like?
The perfect match for Didion and Dunne’s straight, sharp writing, the 1970’s saw an onslaught of fast film stocks that, for the first time in cinema’s history, meant filmmakers no longer required two dozen huge, blaring stage lights for every set-up. All of a sudden, we had films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, and Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park. The rough cinema verite style that would come to define the New Hollywood era and its directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson and John Cassavetes, would not have happened if it wasn’t for the sudden availability of these fast, light sensitive, grain heavy film stocks, that meant real locations, natural light and the volcanic spontaneity of actors like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino.
Anyone who shoots New York City in anything but the grainiest of film stocks isn’t doing it right. New York City, for all its charms, is a dirty town. The only way to be honest to it is with the rich colours and grit of 24 frames of celluloid a second. There’s a cleanliness to digital filmmaking that I struggle to find a fitting use for. Film is expressive, and not thanks to post production grading or colour timing, but entirely on its own. Cinema is not meant to be a picture-perfect replication of reality and it isn’t meant as an impression, that’s theatre, it’s something else. It’s a time capsule. That’s cinema.