"Inserts, Miss Cake, are close-ups; garish interludes in the progress of the whole. Now, unwrap the meat."
This is an interesting (if dour) film from a boundary-pushing time in the 1970s. The film opens with a rowdy bunch of jerks watching a scratchy old print of what appears to be a stag film from many years earlier. Said film features the lovely Veronica Cartwright and quickly escalates from innocent adult film to a rather vicious rape scene very quickly and then we flash back to see the run-up to how that strip of film came to be made in the 30s. Enter "Boy Wonder" (Richard Dreyfuss) - a has-been silent film director who has been reduced to boozing all day and shooting pornography in his starting-to-become-decrepit mansion somewhere off of Hollywood Boulevard. All of the characters in this movie have oddball names: Rex the Wonder Dog, Big Mac, Cathy Cake and Harlene. The whole thing takes place in Boy Wonder's house and it unfolds like a stage play as we watch it. It plays out in real time, which increases the sense of the moment and makes the experience more challenging.
Harlene, (Cartwright - in full Judy Holliday mode) is a former silent starlet who has turned to waitressing and porn after not being able to transition to talkies (due in no small part to her high-pitched voice). Rex The Wonder Dog is the dummy male actor with talky aspirations that Boy Wonder uses in his films. Big Mac (Bob Hoskins) is the cigar-smoking producer who pays his actors in heroin and wads of cash and is working on being a hamburger stand entrepreneur. He has Ms. Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper) in tow. Cake wants to be an actress herself and is curious to see how Boy Wonder works. Wonder has a pretentious eye for filmmaking and is trying to make his adult movies with a stylistic arthouse approach consisting of odd angles and handheld camera shots. Big Mac isn't a fan of this stuff, but Boy Wonder doesn't care about that. He actually doesn't care about much of anything. He spends the whole movie in a kimono robe, usually with a glass of booze or a bottle in his hand. Dreyfuss makes a solid showing as Wonder here. He has the capacity to portray this kind of misanthrope with a certain gravitas and near-charisma that few actors can pull off. Don't get me wrong. He's still quite reprehensible, but Dreyfuss attacks the role as only an actor of his caliber can. I always thought this was such an intriguing film choice for him after he had just taken off in a big way with JAWS. I've come to find out that it was a classic case of this movie being made first and released after - in the wake of the big shark.
Fans of JAWS will likely not be too impressed by this one, but fans of onerous 70s cinema will want to give it a look. While it is one of the more sour and cynical movies of this era, it contains some great and compelling acting work for sure. Jessica Harper in particular plays a more confident and sexy character than folks may be accustomed to and she is dynamite. She also doesn't even show up until at least a quarter of the way through and doesn't get her big scenes until the half way point. It is always a pleasure to watch a movie that brings in a heavy-hitter actor at the fifty-percent mark. The Dreyfuss/Harper scenes are the best in the picture and she makes it easy to see why she has always had the appeal to be a cult icon.
This disc includes an isolated music & effects track and the original theatrical trailer.
Here's John Byrum on casting Dreyfuss in INSERTS:
You can purchase INSERTS from Twilight Time here:
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971; Jerry Schatzberg)
"What do you want me to tell you Marco? It's from Tangiers? It's from Tangiers."
Make this one the bottom half of your 70s feel good cinema double bill and you'll likely not be let down. This movie is one of the more depressing films I've seen in my life and I don't say that to in any way discourage anyone from seeing it. Just the opposite, I highly recommend it. I remember finding it on the then very rare Magnetic Video VHS at a grocery store one day and wanting to watch it immediately. I'd never even heard of it, but my good friend had and we were feeling adventurous. The experience of seeing it stuck with us for a long time afterwards. It's such a remarkable and powerful little bit of business. At the time I saw it, I had no idea who the director was or the writers (Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne). I was totally unaware of the pedigree and it didn't matter. What mattered was the way the movie was made and the lovers at the center of it.
The credits of the film play over black as the ambient sound of New York City in the early 70s runs on the soundtrack. We can hear the din of People conversing and soon comes the roar of the subway until we finally cut to the face of Helen (Kitty Winn) as she huddles anxiously and we can tell she has been traumatized. We find out it's from some kind of back-alley abortion and immediately we feel for her.
It's been said that Francis Ford Coppola cast Pacino in THE GODFATHER after seeing him in this movie. While his character here is nothing like Michael Corleone, it still makes sense that the up and coming young auteur would have spied something in Pacino that would bring him to put him in his next film. Pacino's Bobby is quite a revelation. He is both vulnerable and yet confident and playful. When we first see him, he has an energetic bounce to his step and a manic energy as he makes his way through the crowded streets of the city. When he sees Helen for the first time she is lying sickly on the couch in the apartment of Marco (Raul Julia) who he is selling drugs to. She doesn't look well and Bobby goes over to her and makes sure she's okay and tucks her blanket around her in the most compassionate way. He even gives her his scarf for extra comfort. It's pretty adorable. That is what is really powerful about this film - the tenderness of the love story. Within fifteen minutes, we are totally drawn in by this young couple and their unabashed affection for each other. It's not overdone - it's a pretty low-key romance that we see unfolding on screen, but it is quite a memorable one. Once we're in, then comes the drugs. Slowly we begin to see what Bobby's day to day is like and the kind of fringe characters that he associates with. It creeps in slowly and so does the sense of doom that things may not go perfectly in that storybook kind of way for our Romeo and his Juliet.
Director Jerry Schatzberg uses a gritty documentary style that really captures the New York of the early 70s. Some shots will feature Bobby and Helen in the foreground on street corners as the life of the Big Apple bubbles out of focus in the background around them. New York of this period was a pretty dark and desolate place for a lot of people. The streets, dingy motel rooms and coffee shops that the junkies inhabit create a landscape of desperation and sadness from which they cannot escape. Their only refuge is getting a fix (which they do quite a bit in the film). Bobby and Helen are like candles burning down in a dark room. They are doomed to burn out and their fate is unavoidable. They are both so innocent and child-like though that we hope against hope for the best and that they will find a better life for themselves. Every time I watch the movie I feel that way.
-Isolated Score Track (featuring Unused Music Composed and Conducted by Ned Rorem).
-"Panic in the Streets of New York" (26 mins) - Jerry Schatzberg talks about how he became involved with PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and his experiences working on the film. Cinematographer Adam Holender also talks about his memories of the movie.
-Writers in Needle Park (9 mins) - Co-writer Joan Didion discusses adapting a Life magazine piece about Needle Park to write the script for the movie (and how they didn't really know how to even write a screenplay when they did it). She also talks about hanging out in Needle Park for real to research and get a sense of the junkie lifestyle which is pretty fascinating.
-Notes on Ned Rorem’s Unused Score.
You can purchase THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK from Twilight Time here: