Al Pacino did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park.
This stands as Al Pacino's "The Men" in that it is his only leading turn which predates his major breakout with The Godfather. The earliest scenes of his performance in the film call upon something Pacino rarely ever called upon in the seventies or even later in his career that being a natural charm. As also shown in the Scarecrow a couple years later, also directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Pacino is more than capable in this regard and it is always interesting to see the actor, best known for the brooding Michael Corleone, to be able to relax a little bit. Pacino is indeed very charming here as he shows Bobby, in his best moments, to have this certain lust for existence itself as he goes about his random days in any way he wishes. Pacino brings the right exuberance to these moments, and most importantly realizes the appeal of Bobby as his relationship with Kitty initially begins. In the early scenes the drugs are more of in the background and Pacino has some very strong chemistry with Winn. They have the right ease with each other, and this is pivotal to the way they develop in the film. They are terrific in the way they create the initial basis of the co-dependence as they find the initial basis in a genuine affection, which Pacino makes particularly convincing by how engaging of a personality he is.
The central relationship though begins to find its rough patches right away though given that they are both drug addicts, and Bobby only encourages the use of harder drugs to Helen. Pacino quickly reveals that the charming side, though earnest in its own right, is not all there is to Bobby. Pacino is very good in developing Bobby's whole attachment to drugs which he does in an effectively casual fashion. That is when he uses heroine and encourages Helen to use it as well Pacino does not portray Bobby really giving anything a second thought. Pacino creates the sense of a true addict, who has been an addict for some time, in the way he does not suggest really even a moments hesitation at any point. Pacino instead portrays this as naturally as he does Bobby's charm. Pacino allows to be simply part of the life, and getting high is almost the same as breathing for him. There is a great moment early on for Pacino when Bobby asks Helen to score for him. Pacino is excellent in this scene as he bridges the charmer with the addict, and not even in a sinister way. Instead Pacino manages the connection in Bobby words as he makes it sound like a good step in their relationship, and what's remarkable is that Pacino makes sense of it, at least in terms of Bobby's view. Pacino finds an honesty in the request as he makes it of the genuine lover, rather than of a seedy user.
Now as the film progresses, and focuses far more closely on Helen than Bobby, though Pacino is still lead, it becomes far less concise and rather aimless. The point behind this is understandable, which I will get to in a moment, but it falters in that it fails to makes itself compelling enough within this aimlessness. Pacino's performance also becomes aimless though again understandably so. This is as Bobby begins to become all over the place, this is in part due to the greater focus on Helen, as we never witness a transition period, not even a brief one. In one scene Bobby will be raging against Helen for being a prostitute, the next he'll be loving her, the next he'll be high and lost, others he'll be overdosing and almost dying, the next still he'll be back to his charming self that wins Helen over once again. This not exactly as much of a problem as it might sound, and it certainly is not a problem with Pacino's performance. The reason being the film's goal as well as Pacino's is to capture the mess that the pair of co-dependent junkies becomes. The film's mess again is unfortunately not quite compelling enough, but Pacino should not be faulted. Pacino manages to capture any side of Bobby we might see at a given point and is convincing on that side. Whether that is bringing back the charm, or bringing a far uglier side in the intense anger that comes about in the worst moments of the relationship. The same goes in drifting from a seemingly functioning drug addict, to Pacino becoming a physical wreck whenever Bobby is suffering from too much or too little heroine. Pacino's work makes a cohesive whole out of the mess that Bobby is. I do have to admit though that the film's own weaknesses hinder Pacino a bit. However Pacino's performance on its own still stands as strong early indication of his talent as an actor.