Midnight Cowboy Review
The grass is always greener on the other side, or so young Joe Buck (Jon Voight) thinks, as he quits his dishwasher job in Texas and hops on a bus to New York City, deluding himself that he is the stud the city has been longing for. Wearing an outrageous cowboy outfit, and possessor of boyish charm and a high pitched southern tone, Joe's money has all but departed his wallet almost within five minutes of stepping off the bus, and his gigolo magnetism certainly leaves much to be desired. The naïve 'cowboy' is soon hustled by a homeless con man and self-confessed 'cripple' named Rico Rizzo, or "Ratzo" (Dustin Hoffman in a brilliant dilapidated state). Angry at being conned, Joe tracks down Ratzo and threatens to beat him up. However, due to his foolish yet overtly kind heart, Joe ends up feeling sorry for him, and moves into Ratzo's condemned apartment room in an abandoned building, in order to care for him in his deteriorating condition. The two form an unlikely friendship, with their only way out of this squalor being Joe's chance at becoming a successful gigolo, with the help of Ratzo's management skills. However, priority soon turns to fighting the elements and surviving in the urban war-zone of the respectable citizens and social underground 'freaks'.
The premise for Midnight Cowboy sounds sentimental, but after seeing it you'll agree that the film hasn't any kind of sentimentality at all. Here is a film that could have been one of the bleakest excursions in cinema, were it not for some hilarious scenes. The film was based on the James Leo Herlihy novel, which played much more heavily on the aspect of Joe and Ratzo essentially being gay lovers. Midnight Cowboy deals powerfully with the notion of having unfulfilled dreams, and attacks the urban city vacuum that sucks up youngsters and spits them out chewed and broken almost immediately afterwards.
Made in 1969, the film has loose issues dealing with Vietnam and the drugged-out hippie movement, but these are almost fillers for the background. Midnight Cowboy concentrates solely on the plights of two men, struggling to stay alive in the capitalist American jungle, using teamwork and sex as their weapon of defence. The film was the first X-rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, even though it later received an R-certificate.
Surprisingly enough, the film was directed by an Englishman, the great John Schlesinger (Darling, Marathon Man). This is perhaps the reason why the film keeps a grin on your face despite the bleak overtones, as an American would not have resisted pointing the spotlight of attack more at the country, as opposed to the naïve individuals who are suckered in. For the film to work from Schlesinger's angle, the two characters must be totally convincing, and Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are arguably an even better pairing than Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Voight is so believable and yet so loveable as Joe Buck you almost forgive Buck for his naïve stupidity. Dustin Hoffman as Ratzo is a typically characteristic performance, limping, coughing and being generally unpleasant to watch, and yet the audience still finds it in their hearts to care about Ratzo. The reason they care is down to the wonderful psychedelic directing by Schlesinger, who manages to turn what could be dull and murky sequences into vibrant, surreal statements, that not only drive the narrative in a positive way, but are fun to watch. You only have to look at the classic 'Florida Fantasy' sequence, in which Ratzo fantasises about Joe and him living a life in luxury in sunny Florida, to notice this. Schlesinger juxtaposes this fantasy with a sequence of Joe trying to score in a posh ladies-only hotel, as if the fantasy is dependent on the success of Joe's scoring. As it becomes apparent that Joe isn't being very successful, Ratzo's fantasy turns into a suffocating nightmare in such a slick way that at no point does proceedings seem absurd, even though visually that is how they could be perceived.
The 'Florida Fantasy' sequence is also an excellent example of the wonderful soundtrack that has become classic in status. The inspired pairing of musical composer John Barry with emerging vocalist Harry Nilsson wonderfully suits the tone of Midnight Cowboy. Barry contributes a fine harmonica score that is simplistic and yet carries deep and tragic overtones. As for Nilsson, he was catapulted into overnight fame after performing the excellent Fred Neil number Everybody's Talkin', which sets the happy-go-lucky framework of the whole film during the opening credits.
The grainy cinematography by Adam Holender strikes a perfect chord for the grit factor of Midnight Cowboy, and yet Holender's visuals complement the frenetic editing by Hugh A. Robertson, which turns the poverty moribund of New York City into a quirky circus.
Acting wise, Hoffman and Voight cancelled each other out at the Oscars, losing their Best Actor nominations to John Wayne of all people for True Grit. Sylvia Miles, who has an excellent six minute role as a hustler who out hustles Joe, broke a record for having the shortest Oscar nominated role, although she lost to Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower. However, the film itself triumphed, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted screenplay.
Arguably the greatest American film made by an Englishman, Midnight Cowboy is a lifetime member of the cinema masterpieces club. Rich in symbolism, rich in humour, and rich in quality, the film is the perfect bridge between the optimistic sixties and the paranoid seventies, a decade which kept the grit but threw away the humour.
Academy Awards 1969
Best Director - John Schlesinger
Best Adapted Screenplay - Waldo Salt
Academy Award Nominations 1969
Best Actor - Jon Voight
Best Actor - Dustin Hoffman
Best Supporting Actress - Sylvia Miles
Best Film Editing - Hugh A. Robertson
Despite what it says on the tin, Midnight Cowboy is anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, which is surprising considering it was one of the first MGM releases. The original film was grainy and lacking in polish, and so is the transfer, with an average amount of dirt. Picture is still quite impressive, and is probably the best presentation of the film on any home medium.
The packaging claims the sound mix to be 4.0 surround, but it is essentially mono with stereo music filling the channels. Sound is generally pleasing, with low amounts of hiss and clear audible dialogue. The music appears to have been remastered too, and sounds much richer in tone.
Menu: A very dull and boring static menu that is single blue in colouring and solely text driven.
Packaging: One of the older MGM releases, the packaging is based on their usual template, with a good cover artwork painting of the Joe and Ratzo on the front. Note the packaging states the film to be non-anamorphic, which is an error. Original versions contained a good 8 page booklet with chapter listings. But newer releases contain chapter listings printed on the reverse of the inlay and visible through a transparent amaray.
Reissue Trailer: Not even the original trailer is included, but the reissue trailer, which is sloppy on the part of the DVD producers.
The film is undoubtedly a classic and worthy of owning, but the extras side of the DVD spoils all the film's efforts. The Criterion Laserdisc version contained a commentary, and the VHS Special Edition had an extensive 'revisiting' documentary, which are both sadly lacking on this DVD release. Even the original trailer is omitted for the sake of the reissue trailer. If extras don't bother you, then the £12.99 budget price might make this release one for you to buy. However, if you believe that a Special Edition of the film will no doubt hit the shops one day (given MGM's track record of releasing better versions of films such as Rollerball, Carrie and Raging Bull) then you'd be advised to wait.