Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by John Schlesinger

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas, moves to New York City, where he hopes wealthy women will pay him for his sexual favors. Instead, unable to find any such clients, he is repeatedly cheated and manipulated by various individuals he encounters. After his money has run out, and he has been evicted from the room in which he had been living, Buck is invited by a sickly street hustler named Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who was among the persons who had earlier swindled him, to live in his own squalid flat in a condemned building. Despite their differences, the two men soon become emotionally attached to one another and together attempt to survive from day to day.

Although John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy is occasionally maudlin and heavy-handed, it can be genuinely affecting as well. Not only is the movie able to immerse the viewer in the sad, desperate, and failed lives of its protagonists so that he experiences both the sorrows and the disappointments they continually endure, but, by making him aware that these characters do not appear to have anything better in store for them in the future, it is also able to enhance such feelings with a real sense of hopelessness.


Midnight Cowboy's greatest virtue, without a doubt, is the quality of the performances of its actors. Both of the protagonists can sometimes come across as caricatures. Buck is, to a certain degree, more of a stereotype than a real individual, and Rizzo, with his almost cartoonish voice and exaggerated limp, is somewhat overdone. Voight and Hoffman, however, demonstrate such skill in their portrayals of these two that the viewer soon forgets their characters' more ridiculous traits. The actors and the director alike do intermittently give in to some excess or another and do, consequently, from time to time, detract from the movie's capacity to enthrall the viewer. Nevertheless, even when they have so awakened the moviegoer from his involvement with the film, the two leads are always able to fascinate him with their characters and thereby draw him back into their world.


Moreover, Schlesinger's attempts to bring out the sadness of his protagonists' lives make the film wonderfully affecting. The director's depictions of his characters' incessant bad decisions, repeated defeats, wretched poverty, and inability to fit in with those around them may, at times, be so obvious and so lacking in subtlety that they can be annoying, but such presentations are, nonetheless, sure to leave the viewer nearly overwhelmed with a sense of sorrow. Whatever the situation in which he places Buck and Rizzo, Schlesinger never fails to show how grossly they mishandle it and suffer as a consequence. Even though the feelings of despair aroused by director and the actors could have been far greater had they been more subtly delineated, the movie is still profoundly touching.


This is not to say, however, that Schlesinger does not demonstrate considerable skill. He certainly does so in his inclusion of his characters' various dreams, fantasies, and memories, which are all well handled. At one point, for example, he shows how Buck envisions himself entering into a house with a woman he has propositioned, but who has actually rejected him and left him standing alone on a street. Elsewhere, he reveals Buck's dreams, presenting the viewer with images of the character's real or imagined past and intermingling these with others from the man's present. While showing such scenes, the director, wisely, does not unveil so much of Buck's background that the movie is reduced to some spurious attempt at psychoanalysis. Instead, he presents enough of the character's past, or, at least, of what is occurring in his mind, so that the viewer is better able to engage with him. The best, and funniest, of these internal scenes, however, involves Rizzo, not Buck. In this sequence, Schlesinger moves back and forth between what Rizzo sees externally and what he is picturing in his mind. The director reveals how, outside, he is watching Buck as his friend tries to impersonate a hired escort and, within, he is fantasizing about the life of ease and wealth he hopes to be able to lead should Buck prevail in his efforts. The director, at first, pairs images of Rizzo cavorting and gambling on a Florida beach in the company of crowds of happy pensioners with what he sees of Buck's apparent success and then, as Buck's failure becomes increasingly apparent, distorts the fantasy images so that the viewer is confronted with a vision of gangs of enraged old women threatening the frightened Rizzo. The effect is both humorous and pathetic.


Whatever its faults, Midnight Cowboy is, it must be admitted, an engaging, affecting film that is able to stir up in the viewer a sense of the seemingly insurmountable sorrows which so burden Buck and Rizzo's lives. The movie is, consequently, well worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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