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    Winner About Losers

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As the 24th Cannes Film Festival kicked off this day in 1971, the controversial Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter got the proceedings off to a rocking start. Films in competition over the next 15 days included Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Jack Nicholson’s Drive He Said, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, Milos Forman’s Taking Off and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. The Palme d’Or winner was Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between. Best Actress honors went to newcomer Kitty Winn, co-starring alongside fellow relative film newcomer Al Pacino in another American entry, director Jerry Schatzberg’s powerful and moving The Panic in Needle Park (1971). A fashion and celebrity photographer who gravitated to movies, Schatzberg directed his first movie the year before: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Faye Dunaway as a washed-up model who descends into drug addiction and dislocation from reality. It was simultaneously free-form, stylish and cautionary. Probing starkly deeper into the world of everyday addicts, Schatzberg, cinematographer Adam Holender (Midnight Cowboy) and editor Evan Lottman (The Exorcist) would quickly reteam on Schatzberg’s New York City home turf for what would become “easily the best of many drug-abuse films made in the early 1970s” (Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide). Sadly, today, just as it was 45 years ago, the resurgent drug of choice is heroin. The waiflike Winn is fragile Helen (Winn), a Midwestern girl adrift in Manhattan, attracted to the cocky dealer/addict Bobby (Pacino), and their flashpoint romance is fierce and palpable. But in a sordid cityscape where desperation and survival are just as much a monkey on their backs as their drug dependence, their love holds little hope of salvation. The Panic in Needle Park “is both a poetic and deeply touching love story and a vivid, documentary-style rendering of the squalor and fear felt by addicts drifting like ghosts through the dirty flophouses, cheap diners and trash-strewn sidewalks of the Upper West Side. Eschewing a music track and any direct appeals to sentimentality, Schatzberg imbues the film with a verité quality that lends an air of wrenching, tragic inevitability to the doomed lovers’ tale” (Harvard Film Archive). Cautionary and riveting, it’s a time capsule of a dark period in Big Apple life that’s uncompromising and bittersweet, and a showcase for a pool of New York actors who would achieve greater recognition through the years, like Richard Bright, Kiel Martin, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Joe Santos, Paul Sorvino and the great Raul Julia. Originally, the film was to feature music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem, but Schatzberg ultimately decided to eliminate it from the finished film. By special arrangement, Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray will feature Rorem’s unused score on an Isolated Track. Also included are interviews with Schatzberg and screenwriter Joan Didion (who co-wrote with husband John Gregory Dunne the adaptation of James Mills’ book). Cannes honoree Winn would go on to The Exorcist and several lower-key film and TV roles over the next decade. Co-star Pacino, the future embodier of Scarface, would go on to, putting it succinctly, acting and cultural legend. The Panic in Needle Park drops June 14. Preorders open June 1.