Al Pacino in Jerry Schatzberg’s uneven, but ultimately very worthwhile Panic in Needle Park is kind of a like a more annoying version of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso in Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy from 1969. Luckily for Pacino, and us, that’s an integral part of the act, making the heroin-induced downfall that follows all the more heartbreaking.
Pacino plays Bobby who, along with the innocent Helen (Kitty Winn), hustles the streets of NYC for heroin and money. The streets and the characters make this a rich film: his brother is a suit-and-tie thief. Helen’s former boyfriend Marco (Raul Julia!) is an artist/junkie. There are the requisite number of prostitutes, cops, and dealers lurking in every corner.
Where the movie starts with Bobby as fast-talking and free-wheeling and Helen as quiet and completely taken with him, it gradually evolves into something greater. Essentially an anti-drug piece, this is Requiem for a Dream with a much lesser dream, where Schatzberg’s noisy (literally: there’s camera noise all over this film), handheld grit precedes (and at times, outdoes) Aronofsky’s fluid, music-video technique.
It’s pretty unfortunate that Jerry Schatzberg hasn’t made many films. His Scarecrow from 1973 is one of the all-time greats. Both, alongside some of his other work that I’ve seen, exemplify the realist, NYC tradition so evident in filmmaking at the time, utilizing young talent (Hackman and Pacino in Scarecrow), dialogue-heavy scripts that frequently feel improvised, and a road-movie appeal where movement within the city and its surroundings takes on subtly metaphorical meaning. These aren’t “back to” or “away from” the city films, but they do present the city as both menace and home without the use of inflected shots to do so. It’s simply the idea that location can change character and, to an extent, certain characters must live in the city.
There are a lot of great scenes in Panic in Needle Park. I’ll talk about one in some specifics, but first I want to mention the idea of repetition that Schatzberg uses here. It’s simple repetition, and it might even be for budgetary reasons, but it works. Towards the middle of the film we’re treated to a wide-shot of Bobby leaving prison. In the images below you can see that the camera is in front of a fence as we catch Bobby exiting.
There’s nothing to special about this sequence. It’s a jump in time. We have information that Bobby doesn’t about Helen (she’s in a bit of trouble). But all told, this is a segue moment: Bobby has been released, and now it’s up to him to find Helen and possibly restart their life, hopefully for the better.
At the end of the film, however, Schatzberg uses this exact same shot. Narratively, it’s obvious – Bobby has gone to prison again. But the use an identical frame says a lot more than, say, if he had shot Bobby exiting from a different angle, or cut into close-up. It hits home the idea of recidivism, of cyclical drug use. In short, the repeat shot makes the ending that much more despondent, largely because, after the last time we saw Bobby in this same frame, things didn’t go so well.
The stills below illustrate a scene between Helen and the police officer who has sort of befriended her. He wants her to give up Bobby.
This entire scene is made up of two shots. Shots 1, 2, and 4 above are the same. The camera pans with the cop as he sits down across from Helen, framing her over his shoulder. When she exits (in shot 4), the camera stays static and watches her leave. The only other coverage in this scene is shot 3 – the close-up of the officer.
I’ve talked about “owning scenes” via shot selection in my recent posts about A Dangerous Method and Tuesday, After Christmas. I think it would be obvious here: it’s not Helen’s scene. She never gets a close-up and we don’t start on her. We can make a case against this though – she is the one “revealed.” The second image above shows that – we don’t see her at first (shot 1) and then we do (shot 2). This idea of someone holding power (that is, suspense), gives them control over the scene. Secondly, the fact that we watch her leave, not quite from his perspective, instead of going back to his eyes to get his reaction as she leaves gives her a bit more of a privileged position.
But my feeling is that Schatzberg is a much less clinical director than a Cronenberg and that he wasn’t thinking as much of the psychological impact of this shot selection. Schatzberg’s films have the feel of naturalism and spontaneity, and my guess is that the lone close-up felt right.
What is worth noting here though, is the total lack of coverage that functions in a different way than the long take. These aren’t long takes for the sake of. There is plenty of cutting here (Schatzberg uses the close-up three times in the short scene). But it is a great look at the essential building blocks of a scene (pan to show the space, frame the over-the-shoulder with enough depth to imply an off-screen presence when Helen looks away, close-up to show eyes/reactions) without the overuse of shots simply for rhythm. Panic in Needle Park isn’t a film that was shot to be edited (as one can plainly see in, for example, any Scorsese film). Instead, it’s a film that is shot to be felt. The cuts in here aren’t for jolts or subtle effects. They’re to tell the story and only that. Seems like a simple concept, but it’s really not. Watch any current day scene to get a feel for how much coverage makes up two people at a table. Whether it’s your classic five shots (wide-shot, two mediums, two close-ups), or Tarantino’s camera circling the table, the angles generally change frequently to lend interpretations alongside the story.