Midnight Cowboy Review

It's difficult to imagine the impact that Midnight Cowboy must have had when it was first released, dealing as it does in with issues that the commercial cinema didn't often touch upon in 1969. Whatever faults John Schlesinger's film has, it's remarkably perceptive, particularly when it comes to the central relationship between two outsiders; Joe Buck (Voight), a would-be hustler from Texas, and Enrico 'Ratso' Rizzo (Hoffman), a crippled shyster from the Bronx. This friendship is the focus of the movie, along with Joe Buck's troubled past and his naïve hopes for a better future.

Many British directors do some of their best work on their first time in America – Peter Yates in Bullitt and John Boorman in Point Blank for example - and John Schlesinger is no exception. It would be wrong to say that Midnight Cowboy is intrinsically a better film than his marvellous Billy Liar but coming to America gives him a new canvas and a new set of inspirations. The heaviness of his work on Far From the Madding Crowd has vanished and is replaced by an almost cinema verite style which revels in the bustle of the New York streets and the endless vistas of the journey from Texas to the East Coast. The gritty visuals, concocted in collaboration with cinematographer Adam Holender, who later shot the even more scuzzy Panic in Needle Park, seem to anticipate the work of William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet during the 1970s, and have both a grimy beauty and an underlying sense of threat. But Schlesinger isn't simply making a documentary and this style is contrasted with other visual modes – the glamour of the Miami sequences; the ironic warm glow of the Texas flashbacks; the black and white fantasy scenes; the blissed-out visual orgy of the party. It's a textbook case of a director and his DP being completely confident in what they want and knowing exactly how to get it and you can see that the lessons learned in Schlesinger's British work, particularly in Darling, have not been wasted.

In Billy Liar, Schlesinger mixes fantasy and reality while in Darling, he experiments with various Nouvelle Vague concepts of construction and editing. In Midnight Cowboy, the structure is deliberately fragmented, although the fact that the narrative line remains clear is one of the many virtues of Waldo Salt's superb script which sticks quite closely in spirit to James Leo Herlihy's novel. Right from the start, dialogue is used for exaggerating effect as the phrase “Where's that Joe Buck?” is repeated by numerous characters. Continually, we see Joe Buck's fantasies about what he might do, later contrasted with the considerably more mundane reality. Throughout the film, we seem to be inside Joe Buck's head, so the occasional flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence seem perfectly appropriate. These tell a horrific story of neglect, cruelty and violence which comes to us in short, brutal bursts; it might be unbearable otherwise. This technique, while not new in Midnight Cowboy and familiar from virtually every Spaghetti Western ever made, has been massively influential in American cinema; you can see it in movies as varied as Sweeney Todd and Sudden Impact.

The thing that everybody remembers about the film, even after they’ve probably forgotten the details of the plot – which are often melodramatic and ludicrous – is the relationship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. In some respects, punches are pulled here and the homosexual undertones between the two men are all too obviously swept under the carpet. But there is truth here too; truths about the way people come together, and develop a desperate need for each other, a need which has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with being a human being. Even while I don’t believe the ending and I don’t believe the party sequence and I don’t believe Joe Buck’s actions when he is picked up by the shy man from out of town, I believe in his and Ratso’s relationship. This truth has a lot to do with the writing but even more to do with the acting. Dustin Hoffmann is mannered and awkward at first but the character grows with the story and we become just as attached to him as does Joe Buck. Jon Voight’s portrayal of the lost cowboy, hustling away his romantic dreams of success, is just as good because it suggests undertones which the film doesn’t quite deal with. It’s not enough to suggest that his incipient homosexuality is a result of his grandmother’s smothering or his experiences with the gang who attacked him – these are simplifications. Voight’s achievement is to make us aware that there’s nothing simple here and to make Joe Buck a rounded and complex character.

In some ways the film simply doesn't work and it's important to state that plainly because the movie is admirable despite its flaws. I've already mentioned the party sequence which must have looked like a cliché back in 1969 and now just seems completely unbelievable; quite apart from anything else, I must echo Roger Ebert and ask whether Joe Buck and Ratso would ever have been invited in the first place. More seriously, the fierce compassion which the film extends to its two heroes is all too obviousy lacking when it comes to everyone else. Time after time, other characters are made to seem grotesque, loud, naïve, stupid or dishonest. If Schlesinger and Waldo Salt could have turned their bleak New York setting into a haven for crazy, lost dreamers all of whom have the same troubles and an equally valid story as our two heroes then the film would be considerably more affecting and fundamentally more serious and less melodramatic. We'd lose some of the more outre dramatic sequences – the wildly over-the-top scene with the evangelical minister and the moment when Joe Buck bludgeons his customer with a table lamp – but we'd gain a sense of empathy and our heroes would be part of something greater rather than picked out from the gutter. Midnight Cowboy is often extraordinarily good so it's maybe greedy to want it to be even more but that's the problem when a film touches the heights – we want it to stay there.

The Disc

Midnight Cowboy is released on UK Blu Ray by MGM/Fox and is region free. The release offers acceptable picture and sound quality and contains some valuable extras which have been ported over from the DVD Special Edition.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It's a 1080p transfer which is respectful of the original material without particularly making it shine. There is a good deal of pleasing film grain and the overall appearance respects the original intention to produce a film which looks gritty and slightly scuzzy. It's occasionally a bit scratchy but there is no other serious damage present. No DNR is in evidence. The level of detail is a big step-up from the previous DVD releases and the colours are natural and sometimes striking, particularly in the Florida fantasy sequences. The improvement in this transfer can be seen when you look at the extracts from the film which are presented in SD during the documentaries. A full restoration of the film would no doubt produce better results but this remains the best release that I've seen to date.

The English language soundtrack is, regrettably, a remix from the original mono to DTS-HD MA 5.1. However, while I would have much preferred the original, this is a subtle and intelligent mix which rightfully showcases the dialogue and comes into surround life with the ambient effects, particularly during the street scenes. The music sounds great, as you'd expect, especially when the opening notes of “Everybody's Talkin'” spark into life. Numerous foreign language dubs are available and, from what I sampled, the merits are much the same as with the English track. Subtitles are provided in a range of languages.

The extras are not copious but they are worth your time. The film is accompanied by an audio commentary from the producer, Jerome Hellman. It's a shame that John Schlesinger's commentary from the Criterion laserdisc could not be included but Hellman does his best to keep us informed and entertained. He's an intelligent man, as his filmography amply illustrates, and he is still passionate about this film for which he went out on a limb. More information is provided in two featurettes about the film: After Midnight and Controversy and Acclaim. Both of these contain lots to interest an admirer of the movie including original screen tests, on-set footage and comments from various participants. I particularly liked the comments from John Schlesinger's partner who is funny and frank, although it's a shame that he didn't talk a bit more about how being in the comparatively liberated setting of New York helped Schlesinger with his own sexual identity; Alan Bennett, a friend of the director, has written very amusingly about this. There is also a brief tribute to the director himself which is quite touching. What is missing, however, is any archival input from Schlesinger – there are numerous archive interviews which could have been tracked down since he was always keen to talk about his successes. Be warned, incidentally, that this feature contains a truly terrifying appearance by a waxwork dummy calling itself Robert Evans which is not for the squeamish.

The special features have subtitles in Italian, French, German and English.

Midnight Cowboy is a milestone in the liberation of American cinema; one of the films which demonstrated that non-exploitation films could be explicit about sex and still be taken seriously. In some respects it hasn't dated well but even though its flawed, it's still a fascinating and sometimes great movie. This Blu Ray isn't perfect by any means but it's the best available release of the film for home viewing and is consequently recommended.

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