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Before the title card a statement reads: "The intersection at Broadway and 72nd Street on New York's West Side is officially known as Sherman Square. To heroin addicts it's Needle Park." As noted in the studio production notes, the "park" is a row of wooden benches lining the tiny concrete island formed by the bordering streets, Broadway, 72nd Street and Amsterdam Ave. The area, which received its nickname in the mid-1950s, is comprised of seedy hotels and luncheonettes, and was a hangout for prostitutes and those involved in illegal drug trade. The soundtrack for the film contains no music, but consists of traffic noises and other natural background sounds only. Several reviews erroneously list the title of the film as Panic in Needle Park. Although most reviews list the running time as 110 minutes, the film's copyright records listed a 116-minute duration.
The film was based on a novel by James Mills, which had been based on Mills's two-part pictorial essay in the 26 February and March 5, 1965 issues of Life magazine. According to a November 1967 Hollywood Reporter news item, film rights for the novel were purchased by Avco Embassy Pictures and, according to a March 1969 Variety news item, the film rights were later bought by producer Dominick Dunne, whose brother and sister-in-law, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion wrote the screenplay.
As noted in the onscreen credits, the film was shot entirely in Manhattan. According to the film's studio production notes, portions were shot at Needle Park and the West Side area of New York City, as well as Riverside Park, a New York City prison and hospital ward, the Staten Island Ferry and the East Village. The studio notes reported that makeup man Herman Buchman studied the "track" marks on the arms of hospital patients and victims in morgues and achieved an authentic look for the actors by using a liquid called Flexible Collodian. In scenes in which actors appear to inject themselves, a registered nurse was on set, serving as a technical advisor.
According to a modern source, Jeffrey Walker apppears in the film as a prisoner. The Panic in Needle Park marked Al Pacino's first starring feature film role, although it was neither his nor Kitty Winn's feature film debut, as the studio notes and some reviews erroneously reported. Previously Pacino had appeared in a small part in the 1969 Me, Natalie and had won Obie and Tony awards for Broadway theater performances.
The Panic in Needle Park was shown as an American entry at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, where Winn received a Best Actress award for her performance. According to an August 1971 Variety news item, because of the timeliness of the subject, two churches presented screenings of the film in conjunction with seminars and discussions for students and teacher. The news item also stated that a Boston circuit operator disregarded the film's R rating, which was awarded based on language used in the film, and allowed anyone over ten years of age into the theater without an adult.