This film bristles with an authenticity sure to stun you. It also works on a totally aesthetic level with script, cinematography, characterization, and direction all orchestrated to create a film bound to take you where you have never been before.
Al Pacino is Bobby, a tough, humorous, nervous young man addicted to heroin. His brother Hank (Richard Bright) is a burglar, and most of his friends are in one way or another part of the addicted underworld of New York City. Kitty Winn is Helen, a wholesome-faced Midwestern girl who is living with an artist and recovering from a recent abortion.
Bobby and Helen are immediately attracted to each other and shack up in his hotel room in the Needle Park section of New York's West Side. Telling her that he is "chipping" (taking heroin infrequently), Bobby shoots a fix of heroin. Later she finds out that he is addicted. As a sort of nomadic Ruth figure, Helen decides to go with him wherever he goes: she gets the habit.
Once both of them are hooked their world revolves around heroin. The tools of the habit, the "spike" and the "cooker," the crucial "wake-up" shot of the morning, and the euphoric high of "nodding" consume their time. Their addiction soon gobbles up their energy and depletes their real presence as human beings. In a process of dehumanization, Bobby and Helen struggle to keep their habits alive and financed. When a drug shortage hits Needle Park, panic ensues. Bobby unsuccessfully assists his brother with a robbery. While he is is prison, Helen takes up prostitution to support her habit.
Hotch (Alan Vint), a narcotics agent, is unable to pull Helen out of her downward spiral. She sleeps with Bobby's brother Hank and eventually even betrays Bobby to the police. In the end, Bobby and Helen remain enslaved to heroin — their relationship is a mutual subservience to the most demanding mistress of all.
Director Jerry Schatzberg has drawn a Cannes award winning performance from Kitty Winn as Helen. In her taxing role, she undergoes several transformations with great reportorial skill. Schatzberg has also graphically caught the frenzied underworld life of Needle Park. The grey concrete turf of dirt and drugs effectively communicates the oppressive environment which fosters and abets drug use. But most important, Schatzberg and company have made The Panic in Needle Park an occasion for the American public to meditate upon the frightfulness of heroin addiction and the reasons why many youth opt for the euphoria of white powder rather than the promises of the American dream.