John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy begins with an opening shot of a drive-in cinema screen, blank, standing tall against the deserted Texan landscape in the background.
We hear the sound of horses galloping, Indians yelling, guns being fired. The sounds fade away to someone singing a rendition of ‘Get along, Little Doggies’ a famous cowboy ballad that was recorded by Woody Guthrie and can be found on the album Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs, Vol. 2 (1964). The person singing the song is our hero, our cowboy, our midnight cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight). He changes the lyrics on the last line of the first verse from Wyoming to New York because that’s where he’s headed and he cannot contain his excitement.
‘Where’s that Joe Buck?’ we abruptly hear as we cut to three different restaurant workers, a cook, a waitress and presumably his manager. It sounds like they are saying ‘Where’s that joker?’ and they might as well be. From his opening lines you can tell that Joe Buck isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. Yet his blissful ignorance is endearing as he packs in his dead end job as a dish washer and heads east to the Big Apple, all to the soundtrack of Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’.
His dream is to be a hustler. Hustling middle-aged women into have sex with him and paying him for the pleasure of his company. Within days of arriving in New York the naïve Joe Buck soon realises that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Despite his good looks, Joe doesn’t have the wit to play these wily Upper East Side older women. A scene that typifies this is a hilarious interaction with a poodle owning Madame played by Slyvia Miles. What Joe doesn’t realise is that she is a high-end call girl herself. The hustler becomes the hustled.
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After this unfortunate incident Joe Buck has an encounter that will change his life. He meets a character of which he is likely to have never seen before in the form of Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Ratso is an appropriate nickname. He is the physical antithesis of the straight backed and handsome Joe Buck. He wears a suit like an Italian mobster but if you look closer his sleeves are dirty and his shoes are worn. Ratso is a street hustler who hates his nickname. His mouth says he’ll be Joe’s manager, his eyes tell him he is an idiot. Naturally he steals from the oblivious Joe and bails on him.
Things go even more downhill for Joe after this and he winds up sleeping in subways and in late night movie houses. By chance he meets Ratso again and threatens to pummel him for the 20 dollars he stole. In broad daylight Ratso’s teeth are filthy. Consequently they both take pity on each other and form an interdependent relationship against the hardness of 1960s New York.
Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969 the same year as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. The American New Wave was in its infancy. Midnight Cowboy won three Academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It remains the only X rated film to win best picture. The film has its roots in classic American literature, with its prevalent theme of strong and close male relationships. There is a correlation to be witnessed between Midnight Cowboy and John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Joe Buck is strong in stature but has nothing going on upstairs. Ratso has a diminutive physical appearance, he is hunched over with a limp, but he is shrewd, the brains of the operation. They both share their version of The American Dream. Many films of the American New Wave would be punctuated with this idea, to one degree or another.
Their dreams are visually displayed to us by John Schlesinger, often at the very point where they think that hope is just around the corner. Schlesinger contrasts these euphoric dream sequences with the grime and seediness of their environment. This is a New York that takes it cues from Hubert Selby Jnr’s hellish vision in his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn and foreshadows Scorsese’s version of concrete desolation in his masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976). Comparing these bleak narratives to Midnight Cowboy may be slightly misleading. Schlesinger’s film is not without its injection of humour, mostly pertaining to Joe Buck’s intellect. Schlesinger would film again in New York for Marathon Man (1976) and The Believers (1987) but never became as synonymous with the location as Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen or even later Spike Lee. Perhaps it is because he is an outsider, born and reared in London. Midnight Cowboy is nevertheless an iconic depiction of New York in the 1960s.
A sequence that highlights Schlesinger’s view as an outsider looking in is when Joe and Ratso are invited to a stereotypical psychedelic swinging 60’s party. The Cowboy and the street hustler stick out like a sore thumb. A girl at the party passes a joint to Joe. Another party goer looks for a puff ‘She gave it to me!’ as he drags it down like a Marlboro. It’s a clash between the seedy underbelly of New York and the Andy Warhol artistic, free spirited culture of the times. It’s a clash of two worlds. Our heroes are on the hustle.
Along with the direction, Salt’s screenplay and performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are near career highlights, certainly for Voight. Though some might make an argument for John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) being Voight at his greatest. Waldo Salt is also responsible for the screenplay adaptation of Serpico (1973) in which he shared a screenwriting credit with Norman Wyler (Saturday Night Fever, 1977). Hoffman’s body of work is so vast and full of brilliant performances that it is hard to nail down when he is at his best. However, the ‘I’m walking here!’ apparently improvised, makes his turn as the reluctantly named ‘Ratso’ Rizzo so iconic. In fact, inspiration for this review came from the Irish Film Institute’s screening of Midnight Cowboy (1969) last Saturday June 10th as part of a retrospective of his career ahead of the 50th anniversary re-release of The Graduate (1967).
Ratso’s dream and in turn the easily influenced Joe Buck’s is to travel to Florida. Joe goes to great lengths to make it happen, fuelled by a new found loyalty and obligation to Ratso. There they can bask in the sun and hustle all the older women they want. Joe’s penchant for older woman is founded on one part Freudian psychology, one part traumatic events, all told through a fragmented memory of an unreliable narrator. It is evidence of a darker side of Joe’s psyche. Until the end Joe remains buoyantly dumb, an unfortunate incident for Ratso on a bus makes him crack a joke and laugh like a 10 year old boy. Joe and ‘Ratso’ final journey is full of hope and despair. The ending is bittersweet.