There are many reasons as to why the 1969 film ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was such a success (winning Best Picture Oscar of that year) and is still a highly-regarded film today. The acting, the visual style, the characterisations, the Nilsson hit song accompanying it would all be valid reasons.
But for mine Midnight Cowboy’s greatest strength is its use of New York (where the majority of the film takes place) which is so vivid that it’s an essential part of the film.
When you hear of how films make a city or town appealing, it’s usually through a combination of beautifying the place through picturesque shots that highlights its natural beauty. Not so with New York in Midnight Cowboy. The city is shown as grimy, dirty, vaguely dangerous and full of desperate people on the edge of oblivion. And yet, personally speaking, I found it fascinating and captivating. It made me almost wish I could go back in time to visit the city at the end of the 1960s.
The prime amount of credit for this should go to British director John Schlesinger who was making his first film in America after consistent success during the 1960s in England. He comes in with fresh eyes onto New York and his fascination with New York is conveyed marvelously to the viewer. Sure, the city may be a troubled place but it’s bursting with such human intensity that one’s humanism can only increase after viewing the film.
The story in Midnight Cowboy concerns Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive Texan who believes his destiny is to travel to New York and be a highly-acclaimed prostitute for well-to-do women. Unsurprisingly, the reality doesn’t match his dreams as he is unable to get work, is scammed by con men and is out on the streets trying to find his next meal. Then, when he runs into the con man who scammed him, Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), after initial hostility they form an unlikely friendship. Will they be able to find a way to get out of their dire situation and onto a better life?
For all the technical skill the film displays, the heart of the film is the relationship and friendship between Buck and Rizzo and the exceptional performances of Voight & Hoffman that make it feel so real and moving. While both are equally impressive Hoffman’s performance is the greater achievement because he was just coming off the sensational debut success of ‘The Graduate’ and instead of settling for commercial roles he took the challenge of doing an unlikable character role and created a sympathetic and fascinating characterisation. While The Graduate is what made Hoffman’s career, it is Midnight Cowboy which would be the guide to how his career would turn out.
Midnight Cowboy is a technical triumph for Schlesinger he uses every flashy technical trick – monochrome segments, flash-backs, fantasy sequences, jump cuts, rapid montages – without losing any of the gritty realism essential to the film’s success.
The reason that the film’s technical tricks feel organic and not self-indulgent showing-off is that they often relate directly to a character’s thoughts or provide insight towards them. For example there’s an early scene where Joe is travelling on a bus to New York listening to a radio discussion on women discussing romance when it suddenly switches to a visual montage of wealthy women expressing their desires, culminating in how they want Joe. The fantasy montage ends with Joe screeching in delight. It’s a marvellous example of Joe’s naivety, backed up by detailed technical cinematic skill.
My favourite example of visual trickery is when we see Joe making the same lonely walk (with his radio) down a New York sidewalk and there is intercutting between him doing it during day and night. Within the space of a few seconds, Schlesinger has conveyed how monotonously lonely life is for Joe.
Midnight Cowboy is not only a visual feast but subtly an aural one as well. Joe carries around for much of his time in New York a portable transistor radio which he seems to have on at all times and almost feels like his only friend. The range of noise and chatter coming from the radio highlight how overwhelming and chaotic living in New York would be for someone who came from a rural backdrop (and to us the viewer). When Joe has to sell the radio for money and it gets switched off, it symbolically feels like he is on the verge of oblivion.
The film isn’t flawless – occasionally it overplays its visual style and it turns from naturalistic and necessary to being rather garish and overbaked. An example is a sex scene between Joe and a wealthy woman where they’re rolling on the TV remote which means we see a montage of TV shows while they’re having sex. It doesn’t really add up to much.
More significantly, there’s a late scene where Joe – in desperate need to take an ill Rizzo to Florida – has an aborted homosexual encounter with an older man which ends with Joe violently beats him up to get the necessary money. The scene really doesn’t convince because the characterisation of Joe up to this point suggest that he is capable of such desperation and brutality.
Despite this, Midnight Cowboy almost 50 years after its release holds up as an outstanding film of its era and two great central characterisations. And yes, it does make one want to travel to New York.