Midnight Cowboy

Coming to Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion comes one of the greatest films of the 1960s, John Schlesinger’s award-laden Midnight Cowboy, the film that made an overnight star of the then-unknown Jon Voight and cemented Dustin Hoffman’s status as a quirky leading character actor, it went on to score seven Oscar nominations with three wins in 1970, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and it is currently listed as one of the Top 100 Greatest American Films of all time.

Adapted from James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel by screenwriter Waldo Salt, whose daughter Jennifer appears in a small supporting role, Midnight Cowboy is ostensibly a laser-sharp dissection of contemporary urban life in sixties America but is essentially an unconventional and ultimately touching love story. Voight plays Joe Buck, a young, handsome and somewhat naïve Texan who moves to New York to fulfil his dream of being a hustler – a male prostitute with rich female clients.

Completely unprepared for the venal self-obsession of New Yorkers, Joe soon falls on hard times and is taken in by Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sleazy petty thief with serious health issues. The men eventually become fast friends although it’s clear that Rizzo harbours unrequited romantic feelings for Joe, both Voight and Hoffman nominated for Best Actor Oscars.

John Schlesinger was born into a well-to-do family and after completing his education at Oxford University began his film career in the early 1950s, initially as a character actor, but by the end of that decade he had moved into directing short documentaries and in 1961 won prestigious awards for his film Terminus about a day in the life of Waterloo Station. Moving into fiction in 1962, he achieved instant critical and popular success with his first four features establishing him as one of the trendiest and most in-demand directors of the sixties.

His first three films, A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling were firmly in the social realist mode and dissected life in all levels of contemporary Britain from the kitchen sink in the North of England to the jet-set in Swinging London. After receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Darling, Schlesinger’s fourth film was a lavish period adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd starring the hottest actors of the day, still considered one of the great benchmarks of literary adaptation for the big screen.

In complete contrast to Hardy’s tale of a rural Victorian love triangle, Schlesinger decided to turn his critical social lens onto the contemporary USA, particularly the demi-monde of late-sixties New York. Adapting Herlihy’s novel allowed Schlesinger to create a richly-textured tapestry by taking the classic format of an innocent abroad and placing him firmly in the gutter of one of the greatest metropolises on the planet in 1969.

As Joe’s picaresque adventures unfold he encounters both the lowest and sleaziest that New York has to offer as well as society’s artistic and social elite when he attends a party hosted by members of Warhol’s Factory gang. Warhol himself was due to appear in this scene but the near-fatal shooting just before filming prevented his participation.

The narrative pacing of the film leisurely by modern standards, Schlesinger doesn’t hesitate to use some documentary techniques as Joe’s life slowly unravels while also deploying impressionistic flashbacks to examine Joe’s troubled childhood. Very much of and about its time in content, tone and technique, Schlesinger weaves the tapestry so expertly that Midnight Cowboy has become a timeless classic, every actor perfectly cast with Voight and Hoffman arguably give career-best performances as they negotiate the delicate tonal shifts in Joe and Ratso’s friendship; not a bad achievement for a film created by a posh, classically-educated gay Jew from London.

Perhaps one of the greatest things Midnight Cowboy had going for it was Schlesinger’s choice of music as over the opening credits Harry Nilsson’s now classic cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ sets the tone perfectly for Joe’s youthful optimism as he departs for the Big Apple. Later in the film John Barry’s mournful main theme for harmonica takes over the heavy lifting and the film’s huge success ensured both themes became major hits of the day, Barry’s theme now one of his most recognisable of the many, many film scores he wrote.

In retrospect, Midnight Cowboy would prove to be the high point of Schlesinger’s directorial career; his next film, Sunday Bloody Sunday about an unconventional bourgeois love triangle in London was a huge critical success but did not repeat the popular success he had enjoyed in 1969, though it would gain him his third and final Oscar nomination as Best Director.

For the next thirty years he would continue to direct both feature and television films with varying degrees of success (or otherwise) including The Day of the Locust and Marathon Man where he reunited with Hoffman and even dabbled in a bit of acting but he would never repeat the success he enjoyed with Midnight Cowboy before his career was curtailed by severe ill-health in 2000 and he died in 2003.

Being a Criterion release the disc enjoys a transfer of the highest technical standard and is lavishly endowed with extras. These include a feature commentary recorded by Schlesinger in 1991, presumably for a laserdisc release, and contemporary interviews and behind-the-scenes material, and there are also a couple of newly-commissioned pieces, one featuring the film’s on-set photographer Michael Childers who became Schlesinger’s life-partner for the next thirty-five years and the second featuring the film’s cinematographer Adam Holender.

Midnight Cowboy is available on Blu-ray from Criterion from Monday 28th May



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