Death is the Ultimate High: Two 70’s Films on Heroin and Sex

Unsurprisingly, in the past few years heroin suppliers have been finding new and innovative ways to kill their clients. From late 2013 and into 2014, there were at least 700 deaths connected to fentanyl-cut heroin. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used in hospitals, mostly as an anesthetic, increases the potency of heroin so much that a user who thinks they’re taking their normal dose is actually taking a lethal amount. It’s a fucked up situation and one that’s not likely to change as long as the drug is illegal and unregulated. Because, of course, no matter the risks involved, drugs will always be romanticized so long as using them is an act of rebellion.

Keeping all this in mind, you simply can’t make a movie about heroin that doesn’t inherently make it appealing to a certain part of the population. I’m thinking here mostly of young people going through an otherwise normal rebellious phase. Even a movie like The Panic in Needle Park, which is savage, brutal, frighteningly realistic, can’t help but seem at least a little romantic, because rebellion is romantic, especially to younger people prone to feelings of alienation.

The flipside to Panic’s realism is Inserts, released in 1975, four years after Panic. Inserts takes place in real time and was shot in one location. Essentially, it’s a  stage play on film, though it certainly wasn’t shot live. In addition to being boring at times, the play-like nature of the film lives in fantasy as much as Panic lives in reality. Whereas Panic is a movie about heroin users that also explores sexual politics, Inserts is a movie about sex that explores heroin use. Ultimately, both movies are about ambivalence, the numbing of the senses through overuse of otherwise very pleasurable experiences.

Jerry Schatzberg, the director behind The Panic in Needle Park, got his start as a photographer for glossy magazines like Vogue. Makes sense, considering this film’s emphasis on stark, realistic photography that’s as much of a character as any of the actors. Schatzberg almost walked away from the film because the studio thought that Al Pacino was too old to play Bobby, the movie’s junky lead. Part of what attracted Schatzberg to the project in the first place was the prospect of working with Pacino. At the 2013 Karlovy International Film Festival he was onstage introducing Panic when he said, “Five years before I thought of making the film, I saw a play off-Broadway with a young actor named Al Pacino…I was absolutely riveted when I left. I told my manager, ‘whenever I make a film, that’s the guy I’d like to work with.’” And so with Panic, Schatzberg’s second feature, he got to work with Pacino and the actor’s performance in Panic would pique the interest of Francis Ford Coppola, who would cast him in a little move called The Godfather. Panic made both of their careers.

The screenplay was written by the husband and wife team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. It was based on a novel by James Mills, who actually adapted the novel from a non-fiction pictorial essay for Life magazine that he provided the text for. Bill Eppridge, who took the pictures for the article, should definitely be mentioned because it’s pretty clear when you look at his photos that they were a major influence on the look of the film. The couple who were profiled in the Life piece were quite similar to Pacino’s Bobby and Kitty Winn’s Helen, Panic’s lovestruck junky leads. They were a clean cut white bread couple living in New York. They looked like people you’d trust if they lived next door. But the husband was a thief and the wife was a prostitute and they both had a hell of a monkey on their back.

An electrifyingly young Al Pacino as Bobby.
An electrifyingly young Al Pacino as Bobby.

Without having read the novel, it’s hard to say with any certainty what the contributions of Didion and Dunne amounted to, though I would put money on their screenplay adding to the overall verisimilitude of the piece. A highly accomplished essayist, Didion is known for her meticulous research and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone like that on board when you’re trying to compose as realistic a story as possible. Also, because Helen is as much the focus of the film as Bobby, it probably didn’t hurt to have a female perspective on the whole thing. On one of the special features included on the recent Twilight Time release of the film, Didion said they were finally able to sell the movie to Fox as “Romeo and Juliet on junk.” And that’s really the key, here. As much as The Panic in Needle Park is anything, it is a tragic love story.

The movie opens on a sullen subway ride. Helen (Kitty Winn) is all worry and fear. We won’t find out until a little later that she’s just had an illegal abortion, but we can tell something very traumatic has happened. It’s all in her eyes. Winn has a pair of big, expressive eyes that show worry and fear and physical pain all at once. Really, this is a film where the subtext is played out in small and large gestures on the actors’ faces and nobody, not even Pacino, does it better than Winn. Further proof of this comes a few scenes later at a rundown free hospital, when Helen begs to be seen without having to fill out the lengthy forms that are required. So much intensity in those big worried eyes of hers. It’s quite an unsettling experience. Through Winn’s performance, we’re constantly aware that Helen’s face tells no lies, even when her words do. And while Winn is the best at using her face to deliver messages that her character is otherwise incapable of communicating through dialogue, the other actors keep pace, too. This is especially true in a scene that takes place in a junky hotel, where we see the only gruesome scene of someone shooting up. As blood goes into the dropper and heroin goes into the veins, a look of peacefulness comes over the guy. But somehow, and simultaneously, there’s a look of terror.

Though Bobby first met Helen when he was delivering drugs to her boyfriend, played by a young and very charismatic Raul Julia, he really gets to make an impression on her when he visits her in the hospital while she’s recovering from her abortion. He goes on the pretense that he’d let her borrow a scarf when he visited Raul Julia to sell him some drugs, but he’s clearly smitten with her. It’s here that we get our first taste of Bobby’s electric personality and it’s easy to see why Helen falls for the guy. Bobby’s the embodiment of street romanticism and Helen, a young woman from the midwest, has come to New York on a romantic impulse. We don’t know exactly why she left, but it’s pretty clear that she came for the same reason a lot of midwestern boys and girls leave their hometown: for a kind of adventure they felt like they couldn’t get where they came from. And Bobby, though he’s an addict, is an attractive fast-talker who bleeds confidence. Clearly, this is a romance of opposites, a fascination of differences. Eventually, though, they will have a lot in common. Helen resists taking the drug as long as she can, but there’s such a gap of experience between the junky and the straight person that it’s almost impossible to relate to each other on anything more than a superficial level without the junky getting sober or the sober person taking junk. The healthiest solution for the straight person is to get the hell out of the situation, but we all know how fucking blinding love can be. And so eventually Helen gets into Bobby’s stash when he’s sleeping and shoots up. It’s not long before something very subtle in Helen’s eyes changes, something that most people wouldn’t recognize. But Bobby recognizes it. He looks into her eyes and asks, “When did this happen?” with a strange forlorn tone. She’s not “doing” something. She’s caught something or something’s caught her. It’s like finding out a loved one has a terminal disease. The only thing you can do is try to cope.

And so now, whether she knows it or not, Helen is part of the scene. A weird makeshift family of junkies, prostitutes and thieves. And Bobby has an actual blood relative in the drug scene, too. When Helen and Bobby are in a cafe, still new in their relationship, Bobby sees a smartly dressed guy in a nice suit, mid-thirties or so, walking down the street. Excited, Bobby tells Helen that this is his brother. It’s a neat cinematic trick. We automatically associate a man dressed like Bobby’s brother Frank with a businessman or a lawyer of some sort. However, when Frank gets in the diner and smiles at Helen, we see his missing teeth and we’re suddenly aware that Frank’s success might not be so legitimate. And it’s not. Frank’s success comes from his being a thief, and he explains with pride how he’s never been caught. Helen’s actually quite impressed with the guy, as she is with just about everyone in this new scene. Besides the illegal abortion, she’s clearly never done anything rebellious in her life.


The family dynamic between Frank and Bobby is pretty interesting. Frank loves Bobby as much as he can, and even brings him along on a robbery when Bobby and Helen are broke. Somehow he considers this a more legitimate line of work than drug dealing. And even when Bobby flakes on Frank and never shows up (he’s too busy having a bit of an overdose), Frank offers him another chance the next day. Of course, the job goes south and Bobby ends up getting arrested. And while Bobby’s away, Frank’s loyalty to his brother isn’t so strong that he won’t sleep with Helen.

Sleeping with Bobby is what eventually leads Helen to becoming a full-time prostitute. She’s become so dependent on Bobby that she does what she has to do to keep food in her belly and drugs in her veins. Helen has nothing to do but go back home to the midwest, and though she doesn’t mention exactly why she doesn’t consider this an option, we can guess the kinds of circumstances that might lead a young woman to flee her home and seek her fortune in New York, besides the obvious romantic reasons. As well as all that, Helen clearly feels that, at the very least, there’s nothing but boredom waiting for her. Indeed, during one of their first real conversations, she tells Bobby, “I was born and went to school…” and so on. Either the details of her life are uninteresting or she’s convinced herself that they are. Probably the latter. Her boredom, self-doubt and low self-esteem make for a combination that really opens her up to a guy like Bobby. He’s charismatic, magnetic, friendly enough, a conman, dangerous. He’s everything she thinks she wants. But are they in love? Yes, I think. There’s something like love between them, at least. That is to say, something more than simple attraction. A drug addict’s first love is the drug, and this is certainly true of Bobby. But even though Helen ranks far below the heroin, he still has quite tender feelings for her. As for Helen, well, as she descends into drug addiction herself, Bobby ranks as her second priority, too. But once she gets into prostitution, she becomes addicted to that as well and Bobby ranks third.

While it’s true that Helen’s prostitution begins when Bobby is first sent to jail, and is therefore a necessity, she continues with it after Bobby is released and his drug dealing takes off and he’s making enough money for the both of them. She continues partly because it makes Bobby jealous, forcing him to pay more attention to her, partly because it helps her maintain a measure of independence, but mostly because it’s become another habit. As for Bobby, sex is the complete opposite of a habit. He can’t perform at all because of the drug. One thing’s for sure: Helen doesn’t have sex for pleasure. It’s something mechanical, rote. In Panic sex is a business transaction, a statement of power, an animal necessity. All of the women in the Needle Park drug scene are prostitutes. Just like heroin, there’s no pleasure left in it. The addicts have become numb to it. Sitting in Needle Park on a clear day, a junky tells Helen and Bobby that “death is the ultimate high,” and, as shocking as this statement is, we realize how true it has become for everyone in this strange scene.

The realism in Panic is striking. It was filmed in real Needle Park hotel rooms, with cast and crew stuffed into these tiny spaces. And the casting is just perfect. The actors in the junky ensemble look hardened, as if they’ve been through war. And the teeth! So many decaying, yellowed, missing teeth. This is real stuff. The teeth are always the most obvious outward sign of bodily neglect. This is what happens to people. It’s not pretty. We see a junky shoot up only once, but it’s fucking brutal. Definitely a real needle in a real vein. Blood in the dropper. A necessary sight, I think, but good that they only did it once, otherwise it the movie might have descended into the worst kind of exploitation.

Adding to the realism in Panic is the surprisingly balanced portrayal of the cops who are trying to arrest Bobby and the suppliers he works for. The main detective, Hotch (Alan Vint), first meets Helen as he busts a drug dealer in front of Helen as she’s trying to score for Bobby. Hotch doesn’t bother trying to arrest her. Instead, he takes her along in his squad car as he forces the drug dealer who’s just been arrested to rat on a supplier. The mellow, methodical Hotch looks Helen straight in the eye and says, mater-of-factly, “Everyone rats.” This is a simple fact, a prophecy. And when he says this, we know that Helen is going to eventually turn Bobby in. Love does not win in the drug scene. The addiction wins, freedom wins. Anything but prison wins. And so, after Helen gets caught dealing pills, Hotch keeps Helen in jail for a night and regails her with stories of what happens to women in prison. Helen breaks, but not after a long fight, after her court date for the possession and distribution of pills comes closer. Hotch can get her off. She just needs to set Bobby up.

Well, we know that she’ll break. Like Hotch said, they all do. But, as the film’s odd but convincing ending shows, Helen and Bobby have become a habit for each other that neither can break. Everything in their life is habitual. They can’t kick each other any more than they can kick the drugs.

Bobby's discovery that Helen is on heroin.
Bobby’s discovery that Helen is on heroin.

One of two 1975 Richard Dreyfuss vehicles, Inserts acts as an almost a mirror opposite to Panic’s realism and themes while still illustrating the numbing qualities of sexual excess and drug use. It’s not a great film, nowhere near the quality of a masterpiece like The Panic in Needle Park. Still, it has some important things to say about sex and drugs, and a pretty unique way of saying it.

Inserts, also available through Twilight Time,  was John Byrum’s directorial debut. He got his start writing for Sesame Street, of all things. He also wrote the script for Inserts. As for Dreyfuss, Jaws was released the same year, so it’s no surprise that Inserts quickly became a career footnote. Like Kitty Winn in Panic, Jessica Harper, who plays the innocent Cathy Cake and would go on to play a frail and scared ballerina in Dario Argento’s Suspiria two years later, has big expressive doe eyes that convey everything about the character.

The movie opens as an anonymous group of men watch a stag film. It’s an old film, from the early 1930’s. In fact, it’s the film that we’ll see Dreyfuss’s oddly named character, Wonder Boy, attempt to film in his living room just a little while later. This audience, presumably from the 1970’s, jeers and hollers at the rough and disturbing simulated rape scene and they get even more agitated when the film ends without a “cumshot.” The rest of the movie, stagy and filmed in real time, takes place in Dreyfuss’s living room as we learn the story of the film and ultimately find out why there’s no, uh, climax, to the thing.

We begin with two characters: Wonder Boy and Harlene (Veronica Cartwright). He’s a washed-up director and she’s a washed up actress. They’re in Wonder Boy’s living room, which doubles as a porn set, waiting on Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies) to come over so that they can make a stag film. As well as being an underground porn actress, Harlene is a heroin addict. For his part, Wonder Boy is a serious alcoholic. While waiting on Rex, Harlene convinces a slightly unwilling Wonder Boy to shoot her up. He puts up a mild protest, but finally does it because why not, I suppose.

Richard Dreyfuss in INSERTS
Richard Dreyfuss in INSERTS

Ambivalence is a powerful theme in this movie and it manifests itself in several very disturbing ways. The first, and most powerful, is the death of Harlene just after Wonder Boy films her in a simulated rape scene. The scene is very hard to watch, the one cold piece of reality in an otherwise unrealistic movie. There’s no penetration in the movie itself, of course, but in the movie-within-the-movie, the film that will be watched at a stag party in the 1970’s, this is a porno, which makes the thought of the rape scene that much more disturbing. Going through the audience’s mind is the horror that there is a very real sort of violation going on as Rex puts his hands on Harlene’s throat and slaps her across the face as he violently throws her around the bed and she resists. However, after the camera runs out of film and the scene is over, Harlene starts to laugh about the whole thing and we sigh a little with relief. Jesus, at least she wasn’t really being raped. But the relief is only temporary. We know in our guts that neither of the people in the scene are great actors, so where did the emotion, the horror on Harlene’s face come from? We come to the realization that Rex and Harlene weren’t totally faking things.

But this scene is one of only two where real human emotion expresses itself. Harlene is given some more heroin by Big Mac (Bob Hoskins), an underground porn producer and would be owner of a chain of roadside burger joints. She goes upstairs to quietly overdose off screen. Big Mac’s young girlfriend Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), the only character with a hint of soul left (probably simply because she’s so new to the scene that she hasn’t had time to be corrupted yet), watches the whole thing with fascination. Naturally, she wants to be in the movies, like everyone else in Hollywood.

When Rex goes upstairs to get Harlene so that Wonder Boy can film some inserts (cutaways), he discovers that she’s dead and freaks out. Big Mac and Wonder Boy freak out, too, but not because a life has been lost. No, now that Harlene is dead, they’ll never be able to film the inserts and complete the movie. But the job has to go on. After all, they have a six-picture deal. At one point, Wonder Boy even thinks that perhaps they can film the inserts, including a “cumshot” while Rex has sex with the corpse. Rex vetoes this decision, one of the few sane ideas he has.

Luckily, Rex’s side job happens to be working at a funeral parlor and they have a fresh gravesite where they can bury Harlene. So Big Mac and Rex go off to bury the body, leaving Cathy Cake and Wonder Boy alone. Big Mac doesn’t trust anyone with his girlfriend, but Wonder Boy is impotent from drink. He has a “limp noodle,” as is oft-repeated. The impotence bit is yet another symbol of the ambivalence surrounding the movie. One often hears tales of porn directors who are indifferent to sex, which I would assume would make them better at their job. Objectivity and all that.

Cathy Cake, who wants so badly to be in the business, convinces Wonder Boy to use her to film the inserts. It takes some talking, but Cake isn’t the type to take no for an answer, and soon she’s naked and lying on the bed, ready for a closeup on her breasts as she hops about, pretending to be raped. And how does Wonder Boy order Cake to take her top off? He asks her to “unwrap the meat.” The body, for Wonder Boy, has been worn down to its essential elements, functioning simply as a pile of flesh. Or at least that’s what Wonder Boy has convinced himself and tries to convince others he believes. But Cathy Cake isn’t buying it, and neither does the audience.

Publicity still featuring Richard Dreyfuss
Publicity still featuring Richard Dreyfuss and Jessica Harper

Ah, but then there’s the “cumshot” to consider, yes? One simply can’t perform that act with total ambivalence. And so we come to the most interesting part of the movie, the literal climax. Through coaxing and charm, Cake is able to get Wonder Boy’s “rope to rise.” Wonder Boy lets the ambivalence act fall away and fully surrenders himself to the moment, making passionate love to Cathy Cake. Thinking she was trying to help him awaken dead passions, he forgets completely about the “cumshot.” But, ah-ha, and here’s where the rub of it comes: for all her talk, Cake was just acting. She grows furious when she realizes that the camera wasn’t on, that the act was, essentially, for nothing. And so Wonder Boy is taken out of his temporary connection with reality and taken back to reality. But when Big Mac inevitably comes back to discover his girl and Wonder Boy semi-naked in the makeshift porno bedroom set, he threatens to kill Wonder Boy. Through her cache of charms, Cake is able to save his life, if not his movie. This, then, is about all we’re going to get if we’re looking for anything beyond total moral ambivalence. But it’s enough for this movie, at least.

Both The Panic in Needle Park and Inserts handle ambivalence in sex and drugs in interesting, sometimes profound ways. Panic has the advantage of being a masterpiece of realism, but Inserts does a great job of illustrating the moral ambivalence and boredom that come with this particularly grim territory in its own peculiar way. 

The Panic in Needle Park and Inserts are available through Twilight Time as Limited Edition Blu-ray packages.

About Patrick King 26 Articles
I wrote short stories and a novel before I wrote my first pop culture piece in 2010. Maybe this means I have a certain "literary" perspective that I bring to my criticism. Maybe it means I'm pretentious. Probably both. I get a kick out of art house films and more "lowbrow" entertainment like cartoons and professional wrestling. You can find more of my writing on my personal blog,

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