The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Jezebel (1938), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), The Snake Pit (1947)

Panic In Needle Park

The Panic in Needle Park
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

I’ve written before about seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was around 12 years old. Way too young to see it, or get a lot of it, but it changed the course of my life. It launched a great passion. A passion that continues to this day. By that I mean, the power of acting and what acting can DO to an audience. Because I saw Dog Day Afternoon in the olden days, before my family had a VCR, before video stores were everywhere, before instant gratification became a possibility in Everyday Life, I had to resort to other means to get my fix. This meant poring through the TV Guide to look for movies that seemed interesting, or relevant to my grand passion. Channel 56, thank you for playing old movies with such regularity. It is how I got my education. And it is how I watched the incredibly inappropriate Panic in Needle Park when I was 13 or 14. It was on television, although I find that hard to believe in retrospect. But it was. No other way I would have seen it. (Probably a VERY edited version, although who the hell knows in those Wild West days when kids were not as protected as they are now.) I watched it on the little TV in the downstairs den, and found the experience to be one of sheer horror. It was akin to reading Go Ask Alice, which put me off experimenting with drugs for life (except for one notable exception, which really just drove the point home for me that “This is not for you.”) I know now the sketchy history behind the scam that is Go Ask Alice, but it worked on me like it was meant to. Panic in Needle Park was so horrifying to me, so real, that I remember it feeling like a documentary. I felt I had never seen a movie that seemed so real. Could they have shown the footage of the guy desperately trying to poke a needle into his scarred-over bloody tracks on the TV version that I watched? That scene goes on forever, and I still can’t watch it. But they couldn’t have shown that bit on television, could they?

Panic in Needle Park was, along with Dog Day Afternoon, my introduction to New York cinema, 1970s-style. I was a kid when I first went to New York City. My parents let me take the train by myself – by myself! – to spend the weekend with my aunt Regina. This just would never happen now. My aunt Regina was an actress, in her early 20s at the time, and she took me everywhere. She took me to see Annie (Sarah Jessica Parker played the lead role, for the record), we went to the Museum. I also saw the filth, the porn shops, the homeless people (this was New York in the late 70s, remember), and a gross guy came right up to me and exposed himself, and Regina, horrified, dragged me away. New York wasn’t just dangerous in those days: it FELT dangerous. It was in the air. It was in the trash everywhere. It was in the subways covered in graffiti. As awful as it was, I am glad I remember it and experienced it (although fuck you, guy who exposed himself to a child). I miss that New York. And that cinema, that era, was so formative for me, in terms of how I thought about cinema, and image, and setting, and direction. And acting, where the acting felt like it was “caught” on camera, as opposed to acted FOR the camera. Whatever it was, Panic in Needle Park haunted my 13-year-old psyche, especially the scenes of people just hanging around in dingy rooms, on street corners.

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I was 13. I usually had somewhere to go, to be: school, Sunday school, family obligations, piano lessons, acting lessons. I also had spare hours free here and there, in order to torture myself watching movies that were far too grown-up for me to understand. But, you know, my life was regimented, like a lot of kids’ lives are. The aimlessness on display in Panic in Needle Park was more disturbing than the drug use (for me as a kid, anyway): the drug use I didn’t really understand, except in terms of: DO. NOT. GO. THIS. ROUTE.

The reason I clocked the film as “must see” is because it starred Al Pacino, who had so changed my life with his performance in Dog Day Afternoon. I knew nothing about him. Not yet. I just knew I had to see him again, see him in something ELSE. Even then, I enjoyed seeking out examples that would show the full range of an actor’s career. It is only now, as an adult, that I can really get what an extraordinary performance this is from Pacino, especially in light of the fact that it is his debut. You would never know. He carries himself like a star already. He is the lead of the film, along with Kitty Winn (who plays his slumming girlfriend – she won the Best Actress award that year at Cannes for her role in Needle Park). Pacino’s Bobby is alternately a ball of energy, chewing his gum like it’s a piece of rough steak, his jaw wildly moving, or in a daze of heroin addiction, sleeping in the ratty bed with his mouth wide open. It’s a disturbing image because he is clearly not sleeping, but passed out in mid-moment. He is a charmer, a guy who acts like courting a woman is part of a vaudeville act, he plays ball with the kids in the streets, loud and brash and showing off, and you love him. But you also know he’s on a Dead End Street. Pacino inhabits the drug hustle world of Needle Park (Broadway and 72nd – I dated a guy who lived on that corner, although it was long after the drug scene had been hustled out of there) as though he was born to it. Helen (Kitty Winn) is the somewhat Mary Sue-ish character, written by screenwriting duo (and husband and wife) Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. (The film was produced by John Dunne’s brother, the late Dominick Dunne.)

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But Helen is a clear Didion stand-in. She has the flat affect of some of Didion’s fictional lead characters, in Play it As It Lays or Run River. Untrustworthy because so insubstantial. Helen is a nice girl, who takes a walk on the wild side, for no apparent reason, except that Bobby (Al Pacino) is so compelling. Only he’s not. He’s charming, sure, but he’s a mess, a drug addict, a criminal. He has no sex drive. All of that has gone into drugs. So something’s up with Helen that she is drawn to this world. Helen is an aimless artist, from Fort Wayne Indiana, living in New York with her rather horrible boyfriend (played by Raul Julia, awesome). In the opening scene, she’s on a crowded subway, clearly having some kind of emotional breakdown. We learn in the next scene that she was on her way to an illegal abortion. She gets sick afterwards, lying in bed, and Raul Julia scolds her: “Didn’t I tell you to smoke some weed?”

Helen doesn’t have much going for her. As a matter of fact, she seems built to be prey. At first she doesn’t join her new boyfriend Bobby in doing drugs. But then she caves. She starts hooking for cash, so she can get her fix. A line has been crossed. You can see how Al Pacino’s Bobby struggles with the ramifications of this. He doesn’t like it. But he also needs a fix. He certainly looks at her differently afterwards. Now she’s just like everybody else in his world. (Peter Nellhaus has some more thoughts about the film. I agree with some of what he says, and I think my feeling about the film is certainly colored by the fact that I saw it at age 13 and it lived on in nightmare-fashion in my mind until pretty much this day. But he is right to point out that perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Panic in Needle Park is that this was a film put out by a major studio. Amazing to consider how much the world has changed.)

The drug-taking scenes are realistic to the point of being unwatchable. The film is filled with close-ups of needles going into infected scabby veins. Horror stories abound. There’s a good-hearted prostitute (played by Marcia Jean Kurtz, an actress who is still working, still around – Pacino dovetail: she was also one of the hostages in Dog Day Afternoon, playing a completely different kind of character), who hides her baby in the bathroom so she can service one of her regulars. The “panic” in Needle Park has already begun at the time Kitty joins the group. Drugs are scarce, there’s nothing on the street, people are getting busted, there’s too much demand.

I could have done without the whole puppy side-plot that comes in late through the film. It would work better in a short story. By the time the puppy comes into the picture, the mood of the picture itself is already so bleak and hopeless that the puppy’s trajectory barely registers. I get it. Kitty sleeps with men for money in disgusting alleys and hotel rooms, and doesn’t blink an eye, but she goes gaga over this puppy and it is Life or Death that she takes good care of it, and etc. It’s a bit too symbolic, too Ohio Writers’ Workshop-y.

But Pacino owns the screen. Only a year later The Godfather would come out and he would become a giant star. This is not at all a surprise, seeing his work in Panic in Needle Park. And Kitty Winn is one of those people whose emotions and thoughts register – with EASE – to the camera. You feel no effort in her performance. It’s just THERE.

Oh, and look for a young Paul Sorvino, shame-faced and annoyed in the police station, busted for sleeping with a prostitute.

Pacino and Schatzberg would work together again in Scarecrow, a far superior film, I think. Even crazier, and even less dependent on normal storytelling devices like plot.

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Jezebel
Directed by William Wyler

The feisty Southern girl wants to wear a red dress to the cotillion, and maybe she is a bit headstrong and careless, but everyone knows she’s a virgin and that there’s nothing REALLY inappropriate about her relationship with her fiance (Henry Fonda). It’s the DRESS that marks her downfall. She hasn’t DONE anything wrong. But appearances matter, and that’s what that famous scene is all about. William Wyler moves the camera through the floating visions in white, with people glancing at the camera, horrified, and then, stunningly, pulls back, way back, so that we see the entire crowd has pulled back into a semicircle, far away from Bette Davis in satiny red (well, we assume it’s red since the film is in black-and-white). The scene gives the feeling that she has a communicable disease which, considering where the film goes and how it ends, is appropriate.

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So what is it with Julie? She lives by her own rules, which basically means showing up late to parties, entering snooty rooms still wearing her riding clothes. The pre-Civil-War Southern society in which she has been raised is rigidly hierarchical, although they have far more serious problems underlying the situation than whether or not a virgin chooses to wear a red dress. In the context of the world that is about to be set aflame (literally) by war, Julie’s choices seem extremely silly, and I suppose that’s part of the point and part of her ultimate journey. She represents the silliness of Southern society, the old order that is going to be torched to make room for change and growth. She is engaged to be married to Preston (Fonda), a lawyer, and she has been toying with him mercilessly for probably years. He puts up with it, until finally (Red Dress Alert) he has had enough. The film is actually quite sophisticated about sexual politics, and is a great portrait of a woman who treats flirtation like a vicious game. In other words, she doesn’t know when to drop the game and get serious. And by “serious”, I mean soft, yielding, feminine. A good mate. Not weak – that would be a mischaracterization of what the film is saying. Julie is not grown-up enough yet to realize that once you’re looking at something as serious as marriage, it’s time to put away the games. Preston is a grown man. He’s sick of being teased, coquetted, flirted with, and rebuffed. Life is serious and she’s just a silly little girl. He really does have a point.

Julie decides to wear a red dress to tease Preston and to also punish him for not going on a dress-making jaunt with her. He had to work. Well, she’ll show HIM. The ladies fluttering around her beg her to re-consider, Preston himself gets a glimpse of the dress and says, “Surely you can’t be serious”, which is like waving a red satin ballgown in front of a bull. Bette Davis is almost psychotic in the level of denial and forced gaiety she puts on, to show she doesn’t care. But she does care. She has Missed the Memo: There’s a time for games, and there’s a time to stop playing those games. She pays a huge price. She retires from society and she’s barely out of her teen years, if that. Meanwhile, the tensions between the North and South start heating up. The political conversations at the dinner table are fascinating, made even more so by Julie’s headstrong ignorance. Henry Fonda returns from the North, with a wife, and warns his fellow Southerners that big industry is coming, that the agrarian lifestyle on which the South is based is on the road to being Dunzo. He encounters resistance to these warnings, and Julie, who is heartbroken that he has gotten married, decides to defend the South against Yankee interference, and Yankee sneers. She does so by goading the wife (who is from the North), and goading two gentlemen into a duel. Dueling is an aspect of the society that is seen as barbaric and ridiculous, and Julie’s participation in making one happen is the final straw. Her aunt calls her a Jezebel. Banishment is nearly complete.

So Julie will be made to suffer for her actions. And she does. And when Yellow Fever breaks out, she finds the means to redeem herself, not only in the eyes of her family and friends, but in the eyes of God. Bette Davis is great in the role, and there’s a mania in her behavior that suggests true madness. Blanche Dubois in her final scene in Streetcar.

There are great details throughout: Preston’s good-hearted wife trying to be polite to the Southerners, but still horrified by what she is seeing. Her taken aback reaction to the two black butlers who open the door for her. Slavery right in her face. Henry Fonda is good in what amounts to a pretty thankless role, and he’s actually sexy as hell in some of those later scenes, felled by yellow fever.

But this is the Bette Davis Show and it looks like she had the time of her life. As always, her work is detailed to the utmost. Her behavior with flower arranging, how she moves the vase from table to table to table … She has the ability to both broad and specific, in the same moment.

I Could Never Be Your Woman

I Could Never Be Your Woman
Directed by Amy Heckerling

Talking about Amy Heckerling at last Saturday’s party made me seek out this film, which I had not seen. I love Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but have missed her two latest, I Could Never Be Your Woman and Vamps. I Could Never Be Your Woman is wonderful. Don’t let the two big floating disembodied heads of the poster put you off. Besides, I’ve always been a Michelle Pfeiffer fan, especially in comedic material. Here, she plays Rosie, a TV producer in charge of a show called You Go, Girl!, a sit-com about teenagers. She was once married to Nathan (Jon Lovitz), who has since married a much younger woman and now dresses in track suits and backwards baseball caps, to try to seem young. But he’s a good guy, and they have a very funny relationship – you can clearly see that they are people who were once together, are no longer, love the daughter that they had, but have no mixed feelings about why they are no longer together. This is in the script, but it’s in the performances as well. It’s a delicate balancing act. The comedy is often quite broad, but it requires that underlying sharp social commentary as well as a grounding in realism to make it work. Rosie and Nathan have a 12-year-old daughter named Izzy, played by Saoirse Ronan, who is extremely touching here. There is an irony that Rosie has a daughter who is almost a teenager, and the almost-teen seems more like a little girl than a grownup, and Rosie is filming a TV show with grown adults cast as teenagers. Our ideas/concepts about age are all effed up, in other words. Amy Heckerling goes after all of these ideas/concepts.

Rosie has a treacherous competitive secretary named Jeannie, played by Sarah Alexander. When someone calls the office for Rosie, Jeannie, a hot young blonde, will always answer with something along the lines of, “No, she’s not in right now. She’s getting Botox, can I take a message?” Rosie is busy enough with parenting her daughter, working her ass off, and trying to keep her job (Fred Willard plays her boss at the TV studio, who tries to remain hip by using terms like “Shizzle”, it’s mortifying), that romance is not in the question. You don’t get the sense that she’s yearning for a partner. She’s too fucking busy. But then, during a casting session for a new character on the show, an Erkel-type nerd, a guy walks in and makes them all roar with laughter. This is Adam, played by Paul Rudd. He is also clearly too old to be playing a high schooler, but that’s part of the ongoing joke. He’s only hired for one episode, but the ratings go up, and Rosie writes three more episodes for him. Naturally, too, she looks at him and something inside her thuds: “He cute. Me likey likey.” Despite his cute good looks, Paul Rudd is totally believable as a guy who was not good-looking in high school and learned that the way to get women to like him/pay attention to him is by making them laugh. He’s excited about the new opportunities in his acting career, and he’s also crushing on Rosie a little bit. The power dynamic is all off, because she is basically in charge of his career. But they go out for a date, and sparks fly, but she puts on the brakes. She tells him she’s 39, which is hysterical (they both lie about their ages, multiple times). At one point, after telling her he is 31, he caves and admits to being 29, and she gasps, “What happened to 30??”

Anyway, all of this could be cliched stuff. It’s not. It’s relevant. It’s relevant to the lives of millions of women, and men, who are trying to connect, who are somehow outside the cultural norms (You get married in your 20s, have kids in your 30s, send them to college in your 40s, etc. etc. If you think these cultural norms are easily ignored, then bully for you.) Is age that big a deal? It isn’t to Adam, who likes Rosie, and likes making her laugh. He plays video games with Izzy while waiting for Rosie to come downstairs. He’s intimate, in a very casual way. Meaning: he doesn’t make a big deal out of liking someone, caring about them, he just knows what he likes and settles in to liking it. No biggie. I knew one of those types of guys. Killer combo. If you reversed those terms (ie: if he was casual in a very intimate way), it wouldn’t be as effective. In fact, you may be looking at a sociopath in that case. Perhaps I am projecting. Probably so. But that’s what a good movie can do. It can help you make connections, or at least see that there IS a connection.

Another great thing about the film is that although Rosie’s insecurity about her age, and about the age difference between them, is hugely on her mind, it’s not the ONLY thing she has going on. It’s not like other movies, where the female character’s “job” that she is “obsessed with” is just given lip service so that she can then learn to “relax” and “let go” and “have it all”, or whatever the hell the message is shoveled down our collective throats. Here, you see her at work more than you do with Rudd. You see her trying to deal with her daughter’s blossoming adolescence more than obsessing about this guy. She flat out doesn’t have time. That’s realistic, in my experience. It’s refreshing.

The age difference theme is underlined by Tracey Ullman, who plays “Mother Nature”, wandering through scenes wearing a flowing gown with an empire waist, shoveling fruit into her mouth. She warns Rosie that this age difference thing is a big deal, it goes against nature, eventually a man will want to have babies with you, that’s the deal, that’s how biology works. You know, these are the messages we get all the time. You don’t even know you’re receiving the messages anymore. You reiterate them to yourself. It’s like being in a cult. Jason Beghe, when he busted out of the cult which will remain nameless, gave a pretty famous interview afterwards and he said that the “con” of the cult is so good because “you police yourself”. So in a way, Rosie is “policing herself” in the cult of what is appropriate for her, in terms of a mate, even though everything is going great with Adam, and they click, and it’s not just about hot sex. It’s more about … that they fit, somehow, in each other’s lives. You can talk yourself out of something being right for you, if the cultural noise around your choice is wicked loud (there was a great Thirtysomething plotline where Melissa basically talked herself out of a great love with a guy named Lee who was 15 years younger than she was. That episode was all about projecting your own insecurity out into the culture. Who the hell cares what gossipy unhappy people think anyway about your personal choices in life?). In I Could Never Be Your Woman, the judgment mainly comes from Mother Nature herself, although Rosie also gets it from her vicious secretary who just wants the old folks to step aside and leave room for new blood.

While this is a very serious topic, and I feel very strongly about it, the movie is so so good on the small details. Like Rosie walking into the kitchen and seeing her daughter and a friend with black veils draped over their heads, murmuring some potion amidst a bank of lit candles. They look like small demons of death. Pfeiffer is like, “What are you guys DOING?” They’re creating a love potion, so the cute boy in school will somehow know that Izzy likes him, or whatever. But that detail is so right ON … little girls do stuff like that. We play with Ouija boards, and chant “light as a feather, stiff as a board”, and we are obsessed with witches and potions and spells … I roared at that scene because it’s so accurate. There are also great scenes between Rosie and her daughter, where Rosie tries to guide her through her first crush, tries to support her but also tell her that she shouldn’t sell herself out. Be strong, be careless, pretend you don’t care! (Humorous advice seeing as she does not take the same advice in her own relationship with Adam). But it’s quite touching, the scenes between Pfeiffer and Ronan. Izzy doesn’t seem like Hollywood’s version of a 12-year-old. She seems like the 12-year-olds that I know, the 12-year-old that I was.

It’s a film about an important and controversial topic, but it’s handled lightly, comedically, ironically, and also sensitively – an Amy Heckerling combination, not to be tried by amateurs. A lack of sentimentality helps, too. Love is just part of the wider fabric of life here. Love doesn’t sweep everything aside. It shouldn’t, anyway. Love needs to fit in with all the other stuff going on. It’s not the primary thing. I liked that a lot.

Loved the film!

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The Snake Pit
Directed by Anatole Litvak

Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Snake Pit. She plays Virginia, a troubled woman who has a mental crack-up three days after getting married, and is put into a mental institution. A state hospital. She has no memory of who she is, that she is married, or why she is there. She thinks it’s a prison. She is in a state of terror and confusion for almost the entirety of the film, and it is a gut-wrenching performance.

I watched it the other night and cried off and on throughout the entire thing. Her husband has committed her to the state’s care, and he comes to visit his wife, but she cringes from his touch. She thinks people are trying to trick her. She thinks that maybe he is someone else impersonating her husband.

A kindly psychiatrist, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) starts to make progress with Virginia, in their counseling sessions, and also through sessions with Virginia’s baffled husband (played by Mark Stevens, who is quite wonderful). Some of the story is told in flashback. Virginia’s husband tells the story of how they met, and how they married quickly, without knowing all that much about each other. He says that now he can see some red flags, but he had no idea that the trouble ran this deep. Later in the film, we go further back in flashbacks, and explore the trauma in Virginia’s childhood, because, of course, this is the mid-20th century when Freudian ideas had reached critical mass: There must be a trauma. It can’t just be something off in the wiring of the brain, there must be an EVENT, that can be REMEMBERED, and therefore RELEASED. Quibbles with that concept aside, The Snake Pit is a compassionate and unblinking look at how the mentally ill are treated, the problems with state hospitals and funding, the lack of understanding in the outside world. It’s a very painful film. Hence, my tears.

My only complaint is not enough Celeste Holm! She’s one of my all-time favorites and she’s in a couple of scenes in the beginning. She’s also in the institution and she tries to guide Virginia through the process, looking out for her, reminding her who she is. She’s such a lovely actress.

Anatole Litvak was interested in the reality of the conditions facing those who are put in such hospitals, the inhumane treatment, the rough-housing by the nurses (the way those nurses man-handle Virginia, UGH), the treatment that ends up traumatizing the patient even more. The shock treatment sequence is brutal. If you have read memoirs of that time, then you know that that scene is not an exaggeration. Shock treatment is used as a way to hurry up the possibility of “contact” with the patient, and, in a way, that is made to seem quite urgent and realistic here, since the hospital is overcrowded and patients are released without being “cured” constantly, to make room for others. There are different wards in the hospital (something that Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest describes as well). There are the wards where it is understood that your presence there is temporary. There are the overcrowded middle wards, shot in harrowing detail, women lying in bathtubs being bathed by nurses, lying in narrow beds filling up the ward. Then there is the other ward, the ward you never want to go to. The ward where the incurables have been placed. As you move from ward to ward throughout the film, getting further away from the front door which leads to freedom, the conditions deteriorate. The women in the last ward, the ones who have been there for years, the ones who will never get out, are filthy. They are wild women, the ward is quite loud, with people proclaiming speeches while standing on tops of tables. Many different languages. A hubbub of noise and chaos. The “snake pit” of the title. Virginia, after biting the finger of the man examining her, is put on that ward. You start to see how people get lost in the system. I have to believe Alan Parker saw The Snake Pit, because the famous scene when Brad Davis starts walking against the tide in Midnight Express is clearly here in this film, in another form. (The prisoners are walking around a Turkish rug. Hm. Turkish!) They are not allowed to step ON the rug, and to Virginia that rule seems ridiculous. She says to the nurse, “Why don’t you hang it on the wall then?” Infuriated at the random ruling, she stalks straight into the middle of the rug and sits down on it. All hell breaks loose.

Betsy Blair, the black-listed actress who was nominated for an Oscar for Marty, plays Hester, a violent woman who cannot speak. She seems frozen in a state of perpetual terror. We never learn what made her that way, or why. Her performance wrecked me.

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But Olivia de Havilland. She enters into Virginia’s panic and confusion with such a visceral sense of understanding that in one scene where she starts sobbing, “I don’t know” to a question from Dr. Kik, her agony is so real I wanted to turn away to give her privacy. Seriously. This is a great performance.

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She doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup. Her hair is a wreck. She is clothed in unattractive hospital gowns half the time. She doesn’t care. She has no vanity.

This woman can fucking act. I realize this is not a revelation of any kind. She’s one of the best there is.

Very upsetting film.

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24 Responses to The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Jezebel (1938), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), The Snake Pit (1947)

  1. rae says:

    First off, THANK YOU. I saw snatches of Jezebel once upon a time as a child, and couldn’t figure out what movie it was. What a relief to finally know!

    Secondly, I Could Never Be Your Woman sounds fascinating — especially in terms of cultural norms. Could be just what the doctor ordered; I’ll have to look that up!

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, I Could Be Your Woman is funny and smart.

      Oh and there’s a cameo by Henry Winkler, who plays himself. He is shown at home, by himself, reading Sartre, and laughing uproariously. Hysterical.

      • sheila says:

        Oops – I Could Never Be Your Woman, I mean.

        Dumb title, too – I can never remember it.

        Ignore the title and the bad poster – it’s a good smart movie!

  2. I have to take another look at SCARECROW, but I recall being disappointed – it just seemed a bit forced and pretentious. I love THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, despite that damned puppy. I wish Kitty Winn had done more, she’s really damned good. Let’s not forget the fine work by Richard “Al Neri” Bright, who died so horribly not too far from “Needle Park.” Such a shame.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, horrible death. Just shocking. He’s excellent. I love all these New York actors. They have Manhattan in their PORES. The dirty porn-y 70s Manhattan.

      I don’t find Scarecrow forced or pretentious at all. I love it because NOTHING. HAPPENS. Two guys bum around. That’s it. Gorgeous cinematography. Hackman and Pacino. The film feels no pressure to have anything in terms of plot and that is my favorite kind of movie. And then Hackman does a random striptease in a crowded bar and it makes no sense, and yet it makes total sense in terms of the aimless life that these guys live. AND the point of that scene is to diffuse the violence that seemed to be coming – and it seems so stupid – but then it works.

      I saw it recently when it played at the Film Forum – and it’s gorgeous on a big screen. You can feel how cold it is.

      • It was a movie I had wanted to see for SO LONG, too, and couldn’t get my hands on, so maybe I expected too much.

        • sheila says:

          Right. It’s kind of just an ongoing vaudeville act, that’s how I saw it. Pies in face, running into walls, over and over and over again … the monotony/annoyance of that kind of life, and yet that’s the only life they COULD have.

          And it stayed the course. It didn’t betray the characters or try to suddenly make it Midnight Cowboy. It’s a mood piece mixed with vaudeville. Totally weird, totally 70s, would never happen now.

  3. bybee says:

    I remember going over the TV Guide with a fine-tooth comb.

    • sheila says:

      Totally, right? It was so exciting, marking stuff down, seeing what was coming up. Because who knew when you would get a chance to see any of this stuff again?

  4. violette says:

    I saw panic in needle pari in a M
    movie theatre -71 when I was 15. I loved it, the feeling of the streets, I felt it was rough and poetic, it even made me consider if I should move to New York and become drug addict because I felt their life was so interesting. Pacino and Winn are superb, the film is very poetic, and what a relief, no background music, just the streets. – They don’t make films like in seventies any more, nowadays films are only for kids and yuppie families.

    • sheila says:

      Violette – I appreciate your comment but this: // nowadays films are only for kids and yuppie families. // seems a bit broad, especially when you say that films are ONLY made for that demographic. There are a lot of films coming out today that have nothing to do with pandering to that demographic. Widen your viewing a little bit – lots of cool stuff going on!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting! I also had a visceral reaction to Panic in Needle Park, as I described. It’s so interesting to go to that neighborhood now and see how it has changed – those same streets and corners, but totally not the same feel.

  5. violette says:

    Sheila, thanks for your answer ! My comment on nowadays american F
    films: Naturally good ones are being made, too, well, heh, Al Pacino is still acting ! I think many of the best you see in Sundance filmfestival and Other indie scenes; but the main stream films, feels like 90 % is war Against terrorists, explosions, Pretty women, animations, Special effects, lousy tv Series, stereotyped good and evil, – This colorful way to make Small scale films doesnt interest the Film studios much, I watch a Lot of films outside US, French, italian, japanese, – I go to Small Movie festivals – But the big Movie theaters, Very seldom anything for me, sorry ; except I like the ole Hollywood, 40s, 50s, love them. – In My opinion ( my PC has gone Crazy With big letters) the 70’s Was a truly Special era of Film making in US, combination of best actors, directors, Real locations, good scripts, actually till mid eighties like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow etc. – Well, look at the films you have chosen , They were and excellent.

    • sheila says:

      Violetta – I agree with you that going to the multiplex, or big movie theaters, is often a big bummer. 25 screens and nothing playing!!

      The 70s were such a special decade for American film. You watch some of those films and are amazed they were even made!!

  6. Amy says:

    I stumbled across your blog by way of your article on Jensen Ackles’ acting (such an amazing study of him, by the way), but when I saw “The Snake Pit” I had to stay. I saw “The Snake Pit” between 13 and 14 when I wasn’t a little girl and I was definitely not a woman, right as my “moodiness” was taking that dark turn toward “depression.”
    Needless to say, the movie scared the hell out of me. Hester terrified me. I desperately wanted to know her story, but I was afraid of what it could be (abuse? rape? catastrophic loss?). I had only ever seen Olivia de Havilland in “Gone With The Wind” and I was not prepared to see her so tragic and lost.
    Now I own it on DVD and I admire it for the masterpiece that it is.

    • sheila says:

      Amy – see, this is why I love the Internet. My piece on Jensen Ackles goes out in the universe – people come to read – and then leave comments about The Snake Pit and how much it meant to them. Seriously – I LOVE that. It makes you feel not so alone in the world, somehow, to know there is a tribe of people out there who have seen the stuff you have, who have responded to it.

      I can’t even imagine seeing The Snake Pit at age 13. My God!! It was a harrowing experience to watch it as an adult.

      A lot of movies dealing with mental illness at that time period – late-40s, mid-50s – are actually quite good, and quite compassionate – albeit with that “If we can unlock the memory of what happened to you, you will be HEALED” thing that was in vogue then. But that’s a quibble. I felt that Snake Pit was a really compassionate look at people who were severely mentally ill, and a plea for better treatment and care.

      The way Olivia reaches out to the Betsy Blair character … it just kills me.

      People are so terrified of mental illness – because “losing your mind” is such a terrible thought (and rightly so) – but that terror then turns into incomprehension or judgment or whatever. Movies like The Snake Pit help counter-act that.

      and Olivia de Havilland – my goodness, yes. If you watched Gone With the Wind back to back with Snake Pit – or with The Heiress – or with so many other parts – you realize that she is one of the greatest geniuses to ever practice the craft of acting. She completely succumbs to the part.

      Thank you so much for showing up here (yay, Jensen!) and thank you for staying because of The Snake Pit – that’s really really meaningful for me to hear.

  7. Amy says:

    I not only stayed for “The Snake Pit,” I was on here until almost 2am, just reading-reading-reading. I couldn’t stop reading! I love the way comments become conversations (kinda like this?).
    Okay, so “The Snake Pit” made me really curious about how the brain worked. I watched it as much as I could (bless the classic movie channel that put it into a pretty heavy rotation), just drowning in the story. It even helped me through my darker days, seeing how Olivia’s character made her “break through” made me realize that if she could survive, so could I. It may have even been the catalyst that prompted my obsession with the mentally ill and the asylums that treated them
    I never realized, until I was older, how sympathetic the movie was. Watching it now, I can’t help but admire the medical staff and how they were portrayed.
    Olivia ranks very high on my List of Actresses That Are Beyond Incandescent (a title I cooked up in the throes of year of reading thesauruses for fun). Her role as Virginia cemented her spot. Well, that and the fact she played Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn, who was my first celebrity crush; but that’s a story for another day.

    • sheila says:

      Amy – yes, I love the conversations that happen in comments! It’s so cool!

      I agree that the doctors were portrayed sympathetically – the nurses not so much? – but maybe that was accurate, nurses being on the front-lines with patients, and more susceptible to getting annoyed. That certainly rings true with “my time in a mental institution” memoirs I have read.

      One thing that was very moving was its frank admission of mental illness and how difficult it was – not just for the patient but for family members. I really felt for the poor husband – who had no idea what was happening but at least had the awareness to know something was very very wrong.

      And yes, her willingness to face herself – and pull herself out of the snake pit – with the help of her doctor and his patience – incredibly moving.

      Olivia de Havilland really is a marvel – and I love her as Maid Marian too!!

      She’s still alive, I can’t believe it! She’s really one of the last ones left from the Golden Age – especially now that Luise Rainer has died at the age of 104! And her sister just died last year – amazingly long-lived broads, huh?? I love them both.

      I am glad to hear The Snake Pit is in rotation on classic-movie channels – it seems too dark to be a classic, but it is definitely some of Olivia de Havilland’s best work, that’s for sure.

  8. Debbie Lake says:

    Much like you, I found the combination of Go Ask Alice and Panic in Needle Park enough to put me off drugs for life (excluding the occasional drink for medicinal purposes. ?)

    Dog Day Afternoon and Panic in Needle Park (along with Midnight Cowboy & Taxi Driver) are among my favorite movies precisely because they capture that gritty, dangerous, sleazy and now long dead NYC in which I grew up. Watching these films I can smell the unsavory aromas that wafted up from the sidewalks; feel the nervous energy that raced along my nerve endings while walking down the street. I grew up walking distance from Needle Park and my neighborhood had its share of junkies and assorted low lifes. I miss them every day and these movies let me revisit that NYC for a little while.

    Thanks for reminding me it’s time to research those movies! ?

    • sheila says:

      Debbie –

      Wow! So you really grew up in that environment!! Thanks for your perspective!

      Needle Park has changed so much, right? I look at those benches outside the subway station at 72nd and can barely believe that those junkies in Panic at Needle Park were ever perching there.

      It’s pretty obvious how much New York has changed in that film-makers now have to really work to find locations that call to mind that 1970s New York – and often film in Toronto, because New York has so cleaned up its act and become corporatized/generic.

      I think it’s a mixed blessing. I don’t miss the crime and the strung-out people everywhere … but a part of me does miss the smut and the graffiti-covered subway lines and the grit and the grime.

      I am so glad that all of it was captured in these New York street movies – so, like you say, we can visit that world that has vanished.

      • Debbie Lake says:

        Yup, born & bred in the Westside, 5th generation of my family born there. ?

        Needle Park has changed so dramatically it’s hard to believe it ever existed at all. It’s like a whisp of a dream forgotten when we awake. It seemed so real but was it?

        I’m glad crime is down but frankly can do without the pushy, oblivious tourists and Sex & the City wannabees. I also miss the neighborhood I used to know. In many ways it was like a small town in all the good ways and bad. They were all in your business but also had your back. That has now been gentrified out of existence. As for strung out people – there is still a shitload they’re just strung out on prescription drugs nos instead of Needle freaks. At least the junkies were easier to identify (I’m still amazed by the old junkies’ “rubber band man” like flexibility).

        I also miss the old Forty Deuce – it was a rite of passage for us to walk on 42nd Street and actually see a movie (non porno). In fact if you’ve ever seen the movie Times Square, as lot of my friends were extras in the final scene – garbage bags & all. My apartment building makes a guest appearance at the beginning and end of Family Business. ?

        A lot of the men in my neighborhood worked as teamsters on various movies & TV shows and a number of the mothers worked as usherettes in the Broadway theaters. We were entwined in the film and theatrical industries like vines. Now most of that is gone too. Ahh, the good old days. ?

        • sheila says:

          // I’m glad crime is down but frankly can do without the pushy, oblivious tourists and Sex & the City wannabees. //

          Debbie – you and me both.

          // My apartment building makes a guest appearance at the beginning and end of Family Business. //

          Excellent!!

          My first trips to New York were in the 70s – I was a child visiting my aunt – my parents would put me on the train – by myself. I was 10. Can you imagine any parent doing that in this day and age? And my parents were NOT laissez-faire. But I have vivid memories of the New York of that time.

          I moved to New York juuuuuust before Lion King arrived and with it the “revitalization” or whatever “rehabilitation” of 42nd Street. I actually don’t think it’s an improvement. Who the hell wants to come to New York and eat at Appleby’s? Ugh. There were still peep shows with live girls in the surrounding blocks – but Times Square was all shut down – every building boarded up. It’s hard for me to even believe, considering what is on that block now – huge multiplexes and an Applebys and a Chevy’s and all the rest – so tourist-friendly.

          With a couple of years – not that long – maybe even the following year – 42nd Street was completely different.

          I wrote a whole post about the Smut in New York and how I miss it.

          http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=31121

          I don’t miss the crime. I do miss the smut. I didn’t move to New York to live in suburbia. But oh well. What’s done is done.

          I went to the Montreal Film Festival about 10, 15 years ago – and as I walked the streets I remember thinking: “You know, I sometimes wonder where all the hookers in New York went when they were driven out of town. Clearly, they all came to Montreal.”

          I actually felt at home with all those hookers hanging outside of bars, etc.

          I don’t know, it’s a weird thing!

          • Debbie Lake says:

            Yes! That’s it! I miss the smut! It was so deliciously sleazy and deviant. When hubby was a teen he had neighbors who performed in a live sex show in Times Square! He said they were really nice people. We don’t even know or neighbors now (nor do I want to in most cases ?)

            So the hookers moved to Montreal? That figures. When I visited Toronto a few years back I had a ball because my friend lived in an area with an active gay community and the nightlife reminded me of old Christopher Street. I miss all that outrageous wackiness!

          • sheila says:

            // When hubby was a teen he had neighbors who performed in a live sex show in Times Square! //

            hahahahaha Of course!

            // I miss all that outrageous wackiness! //

            I do, too. I got no problem with “middle America” and think “middle America” has a lot to recommend it – but when you live in New York you don’t want to live in “middle America.” So New York going out of its way to cater to unimaginative people who still want to eat at Appleby’s when they’re in NEW YORK CITY … Come on, let’s be a little snobbier about who we are. Let’s be more like Paris.

            Meet us on OUR level. Deal with US. You can eat Appleby’s at home any day of the week.

            We want tourists to come here. We need the money. But this place is OURS. I don’t know – it’s changed so much since the 70s, and crime is way down, and all of that is a good thing. But not when you sacrifice the character of a place.

          • Debbie Lake says:

            I agree with you. Many moons ago I read a great post on a blog about the suburbanization of NYC. The author pointed out that NYC never needed 7-11s because we had bodegas but once more & more suburbanites starting moving to NYC they wanted their familiar stores and restaurants. Hence the influx of Starbucks, 7-11s, Dunkin Donuts and TGIF, Applebees, etc.

            Bloomburg’s (also know as the Anti-Christ in my household, among other less printable monikers) “pedestrian plazas” cater to this crowd. They were not put there for those of us born in NYC or drawn to it’s frenetic, smutty energy. They were created for tourists and transplants (another filthy word in my house with a very specific meaning and only applied to those who move to NYC and then proceed to try to whitewash it and/or hipsters).

            Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York blog addresses this trend and refers to people creating “Little Wiscos” (or trying to recreate the safety and security they felt in their native states) where they can leave a purse unattended and not worry. I’m sorry but that’s not NYC – mine or anyone else’s or at least it shouldn’t be. I’m not saying crime is good but stupidity should be painful and leaving your things unattended in NYC is stupid (sorry got a little off track there). I just don’t understand why anyone would want to move here or visit here and find exactly the same things they can find at home. Why leave home? It’s beyond my understanding. Then again I grew up in a NYC where watching your back was a form of exercise.

            I’m with you Sheila – meet us on our level or don’t come. I realize tourism is important (I don’t truly accept that but I will give it lip service) but c’mon. We shouldn’t become a suburb. There should be a bit of a challenge to NYC otherwise what’s the point?

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