Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy 03This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.

This review discusses the movie in full detail, so beware spoilers.

Midnight Cowboy 01Joe Buck (Voight) is a young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher and hops a bus to New York City to become a “hustler,” to sell his body to rich old women and make a ton of money.  He wears a buckskin jacket, beautiful shiny boots, and a black cowboy hat.  As the bus travels north, flashbacks tell the story of how his beautiful young mother dumped him with his grandmother, Sally Buck (Ruth White), who raised him while having a series of affairs.  As a young man, he was involved with a girl named “Crazy Annie” (Jennifer Salt) who repeatedly told him “you’re the only one.”  A gang finds them making love in a car and while some of them hold Joe, the others rape Annie while he is forced to watch.

Midnight Cowboy 06When he arrives in New York, he takes a hotel room and wanders the streets trying to find some woman who needs his services.  A wealthy middle-aged woman (Sylvia Miles) takes him up to her apartment and they make love, but the next morning when he asks for money, she weeps and he actually ends up paying her, by giving her cab fare.

Midnight Cowboy 02He meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street con man that everyone calls “Ratso.”  They have a drink together and Ratso tells him that he knows a pimp who can get him lots of work.  He takes a fee of $20 for setting up a meeting with O’Daniel (John McGiver), then disappears.  O’Daniel tries to get Joe to go down on his knees with him and pray to a plastic Jesus mounted on the back of his bathroom door, but Joe freaks out and runs away.  When his money runs out, he takes to the street.  Seeing young homosexuals on the street dressed in cowboy gear, he agrees to oral sex with a young man (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater, but when the boy tells him he doesn’t have any money, Joe is forced to let him go.  Begging crackers in a diner, he watches a mother playing with her son by running a toy mouse over his face.

One day, walking past a coffee shop, he spots Ratso and tries to get his $20 back, but all Ratso has is some change.  However, he offers to share his room with Joe, a flat in a condemned building that still has running water.  Joe comes back with him and the two of them begin a strange, shaky friendship.  Ratso, whose dream is to one day move to Florida and get healthy, helps Joe to clean up and they try to hijack a male escort service job, but Joe blows it and they are back where they started.

Midnight Cowboy 07Winter arrives and with it an intense cold wave.  Stuck in their flat with no heat and no money, Joe and Ratso barely get by, but things take a turn for the worse when Ratso gets sick.  Sitting in a diner one day, they are approached by a strange pair, who take Joe’s picture and give him an invitation to a party at their flat.  This odd couple show up at a Warholesque scene involving pulsing music and film, decked out art scene celebrities (including Viva, Ultra-Violet, and other Andy Warhol actors).  Joe smokes a joint and then is given a pill, while Ratso fills up his coat pockets with salami from the ample spread provided.  Wandering into a room filled with red light, Joe becomes entangled with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), a wealthy woman who agrees to take him home and pay him $20 for sex.  Ratso, who is now covered in sweat most of the time, falls down a flight of stairs.  Although he has always been crippled, he is now having difficulty walking.

Midnight Cowboy 04Initially, Joe finds he can’t perform with Shirley, but when she taunts him with being gay, he comes on very aggressively, then is surprised by the aggression she displays, clawing up his back with her fingernails.  Nevertheless, she gives him a referral to one of her friends and Joe thinks he’s finally on the way to becoming a stud.

When he gets back to their flat, however, Ratso is even more sick, so he goes back out and hooks up with a homosexual salesman, Towny (Barnard Hughes).  Worried about Ratso, he tries to get money from Towny, but when the man resists, he beats him and steals the money to buy two bus tickets to Miami for he and Ratso, who can no longer walk.

Ratso wets himself in the bus, so Joe goes to buy them light clothing for the warm weather.  He gets Ratso a Hawaiian shirt with palm trees on it and he throws away his buckskin jacket, boots and cowboy hat.  As the bus nears Miami, Ratso dies in his seat.

There really aren’t enough good things to say about this movie, which today remains one of the best films ever made.  Obviously, it’s for Adults Only, even though the X-Rating was later downgraded to an R.  In spite of the nudity, the thing that really concerned censors at the time was the abundance of homosexuality in the movie, which no longer carries the stigma it once did.  No sex is graphically shown in the film.

Midnight Cowboy 08I think most credit for the success of this movie is the vision of director John Schlesinger whose use of color, unique camera shots, and creative editing creates a look that is almost one of a kind.  Because dreams are so important, the camera itself has a very dreamy quality, whether it is in the flashbacks to Joe’s childhood or Ratso’s dream of a life in Florida.  The dark blue quality Schlesinger gives to New York City makes it a fully separate world, always fearful and eerie and on the edge of society.  At times, he allows the film to move into black and white and then back into color.  In this film, the city itself functions as dream world and that becomes fully apparent when the sun strikes the two friends on their way to Miami.  They have emerged from the darkness into the light.

The cast is full of terrific actors, which I never realized when I first saw it in a theater so many years ago.  You see it now and can only wonder at stalwarts like John McGiver playing a plastic Jesus loony and Barnard Hughes as a simpering fag.  Bob Balaban was virtually unknown at the time, but Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro were well-respected actors throughout the industry.  Jon Voight is terrific as Joe Buck and he carries a little boy optimism throughout his terrible experiences, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movie with his fully realized Ratso Rizzo.  Even at the time, it had to be considered one of the best performances of all time, but now it clearly shines and withstands the test of time.  He is simply brilliant.

The song that launches the movie, “Everybody’s Talking,” written by Fred Neil and sung by Harry Nilsson, truly gets under your skin and it sets the tone for the movie in the same way that “Sound of Silence” sets the tone for “The Graduate.”  You won’t be able to get it out of your head and that’s not a bad thing.  The entire score is amazing.  John Barry supervised the music and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, a haunting melody carried by a harmonica.

Obviously, I recommend this movie strictly for adults, but it must be considered one of the best films ever made, if not in the Top 10, then very, very close.  Brilliant filmmaking!

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Notorious

Notorious 03The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!