American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Some heroin users are not only addicted to the drug, but psychologically addicted to the needle; their dependency is inseparable from the ritual surrounding it.
Movies about drug addiction are also, sometimes, hung up on the fetishes and compulsions surrounding drugs. If we get a closeup of one needle penetrating the flesh in "The Panic in Needle Park," we get half a dozen. This is too many; the physical reality interrupts our identification with fictional characters. The first actor in "Panic" to stick the needle in, in closeup, is Warren Finnerty, who was doing the same scene 10 years earlier in Shirley Clarke's "The Connection."
In the footsteps of that breakthrough film, Andy Warhol and various above-and underground followers favored the needle closeup as a handy, if artificial, way to shock an audience into the illusion that it is experiencing something other than shock. In "Trash," Joe Dellesandro took so long to get the needle into his arm that you wondered if his veins were indeed as dense as his character's incomprehension.
I mention this because in the original release 20th Century-Fox decided to play up the sensational elements in "The Panic in Needle Park," and to overlook the qualities that make this a special and sometimes extraordinary movie. The New York Times carried one of those public confession ads that apologize for the ads that have gone before. "Did our ads blow it for 'The Panic in Needle Park'!" the studio says. Their mistake (according to the current ad) was to play up the drama and love story in the movie, and play down the shock, the horror, the strong stuff. "If you see it," the ad now promises, "it will sear your senses forever. And that's the truth."