Midnight Cowboy ★★★★

This was one of the films on my list of shame, I had been long aware of it but had never got around to seeing it, until now.

I knew the theme was Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin'' and that Jon Voight's character was a would-be hustler, and Dustin Hoffman's character was a low-down dirty rat. But that's about it.

The film is nothing like I expected. It has some fantastic moments - the way Voight and Hoffman eyeball each other as their friendship (and maybe more, director Schlesinger is silent on the point) develops; the way the radio that is the soundtrack to their cold and lonely existence is silenced as it is pawned; the raving Bible-basher played by John McGiver, who will always be the kind man from Tiffany's for me but who was a fine character player, always a joy to watch.

This is a film about supreme loneliness, a sad and reflective concoction about two lost souls who live drab lives in a New York which is just coming out of the hedonistic 60s to the much more realistic 70s. It is a hopeless and dark film, a moving and deep exploration of the miserable existence of humans who are simply letting life pass them by.

Joe Buck (Voight) may have his cowboy boots and hat and his wide-eyed beauty, but his dreams of hustling quickly float down to earth, and he even lets a geeky gay student blow him in a cinema, which is about as low as you can go. But then even on his first day East from Texas he is picking up a middle-aged wife who has a yen for hot sex with a pretty boy. Then there's Brenda Vaccaro as the flirty ma'am who gets him to perform (I realised watching this she showed up a couple of years later as Sharon in 'Banacek').

John Schlesinger has always been a filmmaker I admired - 'Darling' and 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday' are amongst my favourite films - but this might be his greatest achievement. It has fantasy editing which reminds me of Lindsay Anderson's contemporaneous 'If ...', a rich musical palette which would be developed later in films like Hal Ashby's 'Coming Home' (also featuring Voight). 'Midnight Cowboy' is brave and original filmmaking, minimalist in plot but rich in character, timeless and yet very much of its day.

Hoffman is superb as the crippled thief who lives by conning those he encounters, but Voight - well, he showed such promise here, but within ten years he was purely in tearjerkers like 'The Champ' and eventually faded from the limelight. He's best recalled now as the father of Angelina Jolie, and you can see hints of her here, now and then, although he is the better actor of the two.

So this film might touch you, it might bring your mood down just a tad, and that ending is a heartbreaker - I could see it coming - but this is a film which I suspect will repay repeat viewings as so much is going on on the screen.

The feeling of the dying 60s, the happy people, the hedonists, is prevalent throughout, and if we don't follow Joe beyond the fade-out, we can perhaps guess his future. He's just too naive to be one of life's survivors, and that is perhaps his greatest tragedy.

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