Criterion Prediction #98: Midnight Cowboy, by Alexander Miller
Title: Midnight Cowboy
Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, John McGiver
Synopsis: A young Texas native, Duke, travels to New York City with the intention of being a stud. His male fantasy soon deteriorates in the bustle of modern urban life while he makes an enduring friendship with vagabond Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo.
Critique: Julie Christie once called Midnight Cowboy “the archetypal American seventies film.” Sure, that statement would apply to many titles from the period, but Midnight Cowboy functions on such an enduring level because of its heady mixture of high tourist, cultural cross pollination and hyperbolized, psychedelic Americana, and of course, two powerful lead performances.
Context takes on more significance in the gestation of Midnight Cowboy. While it’s bathed in the lysergic lunacy that leaves Easy Rider, or The Trip feeling dated, Schlesinger’s grab bag of narrative cross cutting, color shifting, and fantasy/dream sequences serves a more substantial purpose in telling the story of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Coming from English director Schlesinger, who cut his teeth in documentaries and features in the mold of British realism substantialized this stylistic turn.
The setting feels like a genuine perception of New York City in the sixties. Like Joe Buck, Schlesinger is a cultural transplant and, as a director, absorbs all of the unrequited eroticism that eluded Buck and spews it into the film’s exclamatory style. It’s percussive and elaborate, but the structure is brave, unrelenting and yet cohesive.
Midnight Cowboy throws its visual panache at you like a ton of bricks. The human element comes from the now iconic performances from Hoffman and Voight; after all, isn’t “I’m walkin’ here” in the upper echelons of pop-culture quotables?
Voight’s swagger and naiveté, though on total opposing sides of the spectrum, perfectly embody the awkward confidence of youthful ambition. Hoffman, whose ability to submerse himself in his roles is on par with but often overshadowed by contemporaries like De Niro and Pacino, feels completely lived-in as the infamous Ratso Rizzo. While the slightly redeemable sleazebag character is something of an archetype now, Hoffman’s schemer is somehow less sympathetic but strangely genuine. Ratso could descend into a caricature, but when he shares that his father was buried with gloves on because of the shoe polish that the “incompetent” (Rizzo’s colorful, politically incorrect phrasing kicks in) is an unenforced moment of vulnerability.
Midnight Cowboy is occasionally obvious but mired in dedication in front of and behind the camera, a justified classic that has aged surprisingly well.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: This film has been teased at, rumored, and filed under the “O” for obligatory in the minds of many regarding a Criterion release. Now that physical media is on the ebb even classics aren’t sought after properties of major studios when DVD was new technology MGM/United Artists probably saw decent returns on an acclaimed best picture winning film, whereas now that’s not so much the case.
That doesn’t mean everything and anything can be fair game for distribution through Criterion but Midnight Cowboy is a long awaited movie that would likely be a good seller. I can only imagine what they could curate for bonus features on this one.