Love and addiction are two ideas that have been explored extensively in film. Every drunk detective or writer has some woman pining after him. But when it is junk the two concepts can quickly lead down a dark path. In Panic in Needle Park, Helen and Bobby fall in love with each other and with junk.
Helen is a recent transplant to New York City. She sees Bobby as electrifying and completely different from the people who exist in her hometown. Bobby steals, hustles, and cops through his existence. Helen falls from him immediately and they start to live with each other. They hang out in needle park where all of the misfits and addicts waste away the day. Part of Bobby’s allure is his habit. It makes him dangerous. Soon Helen is shooting as well and their relationship turns toxic quickly. The money troubles, uneven wavelengths, and rash judgements that are associated with addiction plague their relationship. Due to Helen’s propensity to turn tricks, steal food and visibly cop from dealers gets her into trouble fast. The only way out of the trouble is to turn on Bobby. But would she risk their toxic yet dependable relationship in order to not go to jail?
The strengths in this film don’t rely on the sensational activities depicted, but on the nuanced performances. Anyone could play a junky, but only Al Pacino can play a charismatic one. He shouts, he teases and he is utterly sympathetic despite all of the mean things he does. This film gave him his first starring role and propelled him into his next role which was The Godfather. It is easy to see why he would be perfect for Michael Corleone just by watching this film. He is able to display a range that is envious. In contrast Kitty Winn plays the role of Helen subtly. She mumbles her words and internalize her struggles with junk, prostitution and the law. This performance highlights her inevitable downfall. When she first sees Bobby, you see no emotion except for a hint of a smile and a playful back and forth. Although she doesn’t declare it (until the end of the movie), every expression she makes and action she does is because she loves Bobby.
This movie is far from perfect. There are scenes that seemingly were put in just to shock the audience like the over long scene of the manufacturers cutting the junk or the infamous puppy sequence. But it is easy to overlook these annoying sequences to watch the back and forth between Bobby and Helen. In a dirty seventies New York City, Helen and Bobby were the quintessential couple.