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Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A landmark film in its unflinching descent into the New York gutter, Midnight Cowboy remains emotionally, technically and cinematically stunning today. At the centre of the story slouches Joe Buck (Jon Voight), all the way from small town Texas. Joe may not be a cowboy, even though he dresses in accordance with the public perception of roustabouts, but he is "one hell of a stud!". The problem for Joe is that he's outgrown his birthplace, a magnet for too many bad memories. Thus he decides to jump on the cross-country bus, to a place where rich women are always looking to be serviced by eager young men. That his na´ve and trusting manner leads him into trouble, with "client" Cass (Sylvia Miles), is not a surprise. That he winds up with sleazy Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is.

It's fitting that the film both begins and ends with Joe on a bus, since Midnight Cowboy is really his story. From the moment he pops up in Texas, we see the world almost exclusively through his eyes. He's sick to death of washing dishes and figures that he might as well test his mettle in the big city; we know that his country ways are no match for the urban jungle but Joe has yet to discover this. What happens then, through John Schlesinger's direction, is very clever -- not only do we meet the "before" version of Joe, but we are made a party to his inevitable corruption and moral disintegration. The story keeps step with Joe as he passes from woman to man, from hotel to street and from cowboy to tourist. Every quality that Joe felt defined him is stripped away, leaving him naked (figuratively speaking) but alive.

Yet as much as Voight defines the story, his Joe is nothing without Hoffman's Ratso. What Ratso provides is a character "of the city", someone who knows the cracks and the tricks, a person who tries to thrive despite the endless knocks. Unlike Joe we don't get shown where Ratso came from - this is not his story after all - but we do see where he is right now. It's not much to write home about, squatting in a condemned building, but it's Ratso's space and Buck is the outsider here. Thus Ratso's physical disability is offset by his street-savvy, his eye for a fast opportunity. Joe may be tall and strong, an Adonis compared to Ratso, but New York is eating him alive. Midnight Cowboy is driven by their unlikely alliance, a friendship born of adversity.

In bringing these two strongly drawn figures to the screen, both Hoffman and Voight give outstanding performances. Separately they locate the personalities of Ratso and Joe, digging out the experiences that shape their interactions with, and reactions to, other people. Together the pair generate a chemistry, a beautiful and tender relationship of mutual dependency; this is the heart of Midnight Cowboy. Others, such as the religious nut Mr. O'Daniel (John McGiver), try to intrude upon this dance, but to little effect. These folk always look two-dimensional because we're seeing them from the lowest rung of the ladder; Joe and Ratso are only interested if food or money is involved. Yet this predicament doesn't stop the duo laughing or dreaming; these escape routes cost nothing. As a result Midnight Cowboy is often wryly amusing, despite the gruelling subject matter.

Fortunately, while Schlesinger appreciates the importance of allowing Hoffman and Voight the room to act, he's also aware that this is a film and not a play. Hence Midnight Cowboy is a powerfully cinematic experience, grafting Waldo Salt's screenplay onto the daring photography of Adam Holender. Not only does Holender experiment successfully with his style of filming, keeping the camera loose and close-up, but he plays with the film stock itself. Thus the differing results of dreaming have distinct styles; Joe imagines catching the tricky Ratso in black and white, Ratso fantasises about Florida in glowing tones and Joe reflects on happier childhood times in soft-focus. It's a credit to the filmmakers that these mental drifts, squeezed in throughout the film, never disrupt the core plot. At other times, particularly during the party sequence, filters are used to heighten the impact of scenes. In combination with the smart, rhythmic editing of Hugh A. Robertson, the outcome is well structured and perfectly paced.

Include John Barry's haunting soundtrack and Hoffman's makeup (Ratso all puffy-eyed and greasy with the sheen of illness) and you have a classic film. In marshalling these elements to such effect, Schlesinger has created an effectively timeless masterpiece. Despite themes that might seem anchored in the '60s (pot, free sex, Warhol groupies), Midnight Cowboy escapes from the clutches of the period. Its sad and touching central relationship is simply too strong to be tied down; the world has moved on but Ratso and Joe resonate just as forcefully.


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