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MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)

Midnight Cowboy - PosterThe Criterion Collection are happy to present a new digitally re-mastered edition of the 1969 American classic, 'Midnight Cowboy'. It was directed by John Schlesinger, and starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Plus, as a special bonus, the 113 minute film is accompanied by six featurettes, two documentaries, as well as a director's commentary and associated trailer. Please enjoy.


Midnight Cowboy [The Criterion Collection]


THE STORY:
For most of my life nigh on every woman I’ve ever met has fallen in love with me, be it my Ma', be it my girlfriend, or be it any other lovely lady who’s caught my eye. So that’s why I thought it would be a pretty good idea to jump on a bus and travel across-country so I can become a big-shot stud over here in the city that never sleeps, namely, New York, New York.

But no! That wasn’t a good idea, was it ‘Ratso’ (Dustin Hoffman)? Or as you like to be called, Enrico Salvatore Rizzo! And why was that, partner? Why did my time here in the big bad city slowly go from hopeful to hopeless? No. You don’t have to answer my question, because we both know exactly why nothing has turned out for the best. 

It was you, wasn’t it Rizzo? You messed up my life, my plans, and my time here in New York as you stole what little money I had left and now I’m homeless, penniless, and so desperate that I’ve had to do things I don’t even want to think about. 

So go on, tell me how you’re going to redeem yourself and turn everything around! Go on, tell me to my face. Right here, right now! After all, I am Cowboy Joe Buck from Texas (Jon Voight), which is most probably why what next transpires jumps like a stallion when I get myself a brand new manager. As mutual mistrust begins to rust - a partnership takes some time to adjust - a drug filled party morphs into full-on lust - and at the end of the day, look out world because it’s either Miami or bust! 




THE REVIEW:
Now I know that this may sound like a strange thing to say, but in a funny way ‘Midnight Cowboy’ reminds me of a perverted version of Lewis Carroll’s children's story, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. For a start, you have the main protagonist, or our hero, so to speak (Alice / Joe Buck), who’s basically a good-hearted and fairly polite person whose only downfall is that they’re very-very naive. Next up on the list would have to be the hero’s counterpoint, otherwise known as their foil (The White Rabbit / Ratso Rizzo), who acts as a key figure that introduces the main character to their eventful quest (finding their way home / to find themselves), doing so without forgetting to highlight certain attributes they may or may not possess. After that, you have the other subsidiary characters who gradually populate the plot, characters that range from funny (Dum & Dee / Middle-Aged Prostitute), dark (The Red Queen / Grandma), gothic (The Caterpillar / Homosexual College Student), and bright (The White Queen / Shirley). And last, but not least, you have the actual world where each of these characters physically inhabit (Wonderland / New York), which at first glance may seem like a very strange place, terrifying even, yet as the hero slowly progresses through their journey, step, by step, by step, they start to grow accustomed to its peculiar ticks and turns.

Midnight Cowboy - Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
There. How does that sound? Good to you? Plausible at least? If not, then another way of looking at this film is by understanding the numerous layers it has on offer. On the one hand, it’s about two lonely individuals looking for salvation and their rightful place in this world, while on the other, it’s about a drug-filled society that cares more about having a good time rather than looking after their own.

Take Dustin Hoffman’s character, for instance, Ratzo Rizzo, as he’s basically a poor down on his luck cripple who has to steal to get along. Well, let’s face it! What other options does he have available? He has no family, he has no regular form of income, and he’s constantly being plagued by an ailment every single day of his life. Along similar lines, I can say exactly the same thing about the character played by Jon Voight, Joe Buck, who likewise doesn’t seem to have anyone to support him or be able to give him some pertinent advice. Granted, Joe is more mobile than Ratzo and does appear to have some sort of drive and ambition. That said, however, his ambition has regrettably been corrupted by a past tragedy which has pushed him in a direction that’s delusional at best. 

Oh, and as I’m on the subject of direction, I best mention some of the artistic aspects associated with this adventure. Like the music, for instance, which was used to either brighten up certain scenes or make them even darker. My personal favorite tune would have to be the song sung by Harry Nilsson, ‘Everybody's Talkin’, because it has this real rhythmical and harmonic beat that brought a lot of sequences to life, such as the opening sequence where Joe Buck quits his job and catches a bus to New York City. This is then closely followed by John Barry’s westernized film-score, entitled ‘Faith No More’, which added a rhapsodic tone to those ‘urbanized’ scenes by undercutting the tension with a flowing motif comprised of a rhythmical harmonica.

Midnight Cowboy - Sexy Brenda Vaccaro
Visually the look of the movie was just as good as the way it sounded. As a matter of fact, everything looked fantastic, really fantastic, and was very visceral too, ranging from Ratzo Rizzo’s derelict downtown apartment (Boy, that place looked dirty), the country vibes coming out of Texas (Yeeeehaww), as well as the neon filled streets of New York City ('Mean Streets' anyone?). Heck, if you lived in any of these locations during the late 60s, then I’m sure you’d appreciate getting another chance to see how things once were.

The same high standard can also be seen in each of the actor's performances, as everyone played their parts with such a level of authenticity they were able to bring their respective characters to life. Jon Voight played Joe like a cuddly teddy-bear who wanted to do more than just cuddle, whereas Dustin Hoffman played Ratzo like a slippery snake with a secluded heart of gold. A notable mention should also go out to Brenda Vaccaro, who played Shirley, as she was sexy, glamorous, demure, and professional enough to understand that sometimes less is more (If you catch my drift).

Midnight Cowboy - Foreign Film Poster
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because now I think it's a pretty good idea to present you with the following filmic facts: (1) 'United Artists' first released this $3.2 million dollar production on exactly the same day the American actress Anne Heche was born. It was on the 25th of May, 1969, and it clawed back $44.8 million dollars at the box office. (2) Loosely translated, this project was entitled 'Lost in the Night' in Argentina; 'A Sidewalk Man' in Italy; and 'Asphalt Cowboy' in Germany. (3) Apart from the interior scenes which were shot inside 'Filmways Studios', 246 East 127th Street, located in East Harlem, most of this movie was shot on location throughout New York, Texas, and Florida. In Florida you might be able to notice Hollywood and Miami Beach; then in Texas you'll be able to see Big Spring, Stanton, and Sweetwater; and finally in New York there's Times Square, the Lincoln Tunnel, Mercer Street, select parts of Manhattan, 114 East 72nd Street, and Papa Ratzo's grave in the Holy Name Cemetery. (4) One of the taglines used to promote this picture was: 'Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true'. (5) The screenplay for this drama was written by Waldo Salt and John Schlesinger, its director, who adapted it from a book written by James Leo Herlihy that was published four years earlier. (6) Some of the actors who were considered to play the part of Joe Buck, includes: Harrison Ford, John Saxon, Warren Beatty, Elvis Presley, Lee Majors, Michael Sarrazin, and Kiel Martin, to name but a few. Although for one reason or another, namely, over pay, availability, taste, or them being too recognizable, they each passed on the role. (7) Upon its release, this movie was awarded an 'X-rating', which at the time meant that it was going to be associated with 'hardcore sex films' so there couldn't be any advertising or a wide theatrical release. But then when it went on to win an Oscar, the first and only film with this rating ever to do so, well, it was given a new 'R-rating' [children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian] without having to have anything changed or removed. (8) After this movie mooned at the moon, Dustin Hoffman starred with Mia Farrow in the romantic-drama, 'John and Mary'; whereas Jon Voight starred with Barry Gordon in the comedy, 'Out Of It'.

Midnight Cowboy - Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
In closing, I would just like to point out that the only flaw I found with ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was how certain parts of it was shrouded in so much ambiguity that I would’ve preferred if things were made a bit clearer. For example, it was never made quite clear what fateful disease Ratzo was continually suffering from (despite his final fate). I mean, was he suffering from tuberculosis? Was he paraplegic? Or did he contract something like AIDS / HIV? After all, at one stage in the story he does mention that he’s fully aware of what goes on, ‘Uptown with the Cowboys’, so his own sexuality is just as ambivalent as his unfortunate ailment.

Coincidentally the same can also be said about certain flashback sequences and reimagined scenarios, saying so because quite a few of them came across slightly jarring whenever they would pop up and show their face. Sometimes they would add a modicum of weight to the overall plot, whereas at other times they did seem somewhat detached, aloof even, to the point that it may take a couple of viewings before you can completely understand what’s actually going on with certain characters and scenes.

Apart from that, though, on the whole, this film was a marvelous film and it definitely deserves its status as a cinema classic. This is largely due to its thought-provoking script, it’s un-judgemental attitude, it’s neo-realist 70s style, and of course, it’s great acting by two of the great stars during their prime.

THE RATING: A

MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) Reviewed by David Lee Andrews on May 28, 2018 Rating: 5

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