Friday, December 7, 2007

MIDNIGHT COWBOY: Blu-ray (United Artists 1969) MGM Home Video

Based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) marked a definite turn in the way Academy voters cast their ballots. AMPAS, long admired, berated, applauded or abhorred (depending on who you ask) for its milquetoast sentiments towards art that dared push the time-honoured invisible boundaries in film making took an unexpected step away from their usual favouring of big budget epics/musicals and instead went for this hard-hitting modestly budgeted melodrama about the unlikely bond that develops between aspiring gigolo/greenhorn Texan, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and street savvy two bit hustler, Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).
Owing to the brief flashes of nudity, its overt references to homosexuality, and its particularly disturbing rape scene, Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Today, despite changing attitudes and tastes the film’s content continues to hold up remarkably well, primarily thanks to Schlesinger’s focus on the friendship between Joe and Rizzo. Walter Salts’ screenplay begins with Joe quitting his job at a roadside greasy spoon in Big Spring Texas – a backwater with dead end possibilities for a man of his obvious good looks. Dressed like a cheap knock off of the clichéd western rodeo star, Joe aspires to become some New York socialite’s kept man. But he is hopelessly inept at his chosen profession – painfully obvious once he reaches the urban decay of New York City.
After several false starts, Joe meets Rizzo, a cut-rate con artist who promises an introduction to a well-known pimp, only to steal Joe’s money instead and turn him over to a religious fanatic. Out of luck and money, and now desperate for both, Joe markets himself for gay sex – a deviation from the novel’s premise that Joe’s bisexuality only extended to close friends and not total strangers. With no hope of securing…uh… ‘work’ Joe divides his time between an all-night movie theater where he can acquire some fresh Johns and the local bus terminal that has become his new home. When next his path crosses Rizzo’s, Joe threatens the cripple with bodily harm – a move that makes for an unlikely truce between them. Rizzo trains Joe in the art of pick-pocketing and makes several serious attempts at marketing him as a heterosexual stud for hire.
The directorial choices Schlesinger makes in providing back-story for these two unlikely compatriots is interesting. For Rizzo, the past is revealed primarily through dialogue – mostly quiet conversations with Joe. We learn that Rizzo refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a shoe shiner. However, for Joe, Schlesinger employs the cinematic device of the flashback. The audience actually gets to see Joe’s fractured past – his Grandmother Sally (Ruth White) dies of a broken heart while Joe is off serving his country in Viet Nam. Joe’s girlfriend, Annie (Jennifer Salt) was loose gal who reformed after meeting Joe. But one night, the good ol’ boys got together to hunt her down. Finding Annie and Joe in the backseat of Joe’s car the rabble took their turns raping both Annie and Joe, forcing Annie’s father to institutionalize her after she suffered a nervous breakdown.
From here, the story only gets more bizarre: Joe and Rizzo continue to pull off their petty heists. They are invited to a swinger’s party where Joe mistakes marijuana for a cigarette and is shortly thereafter slipped a pill that causes him to hallucinate. Higher than a kite, Joe leaves the party with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) – a cougar-ish socialite on the make. But their first sexual encounter is thwarted by the residual effects of the marijuana. It renders Joe temporarily impotent.
Meanwhile, Rizzo, who has fallen down a flight of stairs, makes his way home with a hacking cough that is getting the better of him. Indeed, the story hints that he has developed tuberculosis. When Joe returns from his romp with Shirley, he discovers Rizzo gravely ill. The two get aboard a bus to make haste to Miami where Rizzo has suggested the warmer climate will do him good. Regrettably, Rizzo dies, leaving Joe once more alone and friendless in the world unrepentant and cynical, and destined to devour his dreams.
Midnight Cowboy is very dark and often quite disturbing. The ugliness of its story would be enough to turn off most viewers if not for Waldo Salt’s masterful screenplay that keeps the corrosiveness of the story at bay just long enough to explore the fascinating, if utterly flawed relationship between Joe and Rizzo. These are two utterly tragic outcasts – each trapped in the seedy underbelly of a cold and heartless world that has turned against them. Both Hoffman and Voight turn in devasting performances in this quintessential ‘drawing room’ melodrama that uses the whole of New York as its backdrop. Adam Holender’s cinematography transforms the dingy streets of Manhattan into an ever constricting web that threatens to trap and crush our anti-heroic duo.    
MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray doesn’t fair all that much better than their various DVD incarnations. This is definitely a tired old 1080p up-conversion of the same tired old 720p video files that Fox has had under lock and key since 2005. Colours are muddier than expected and contrast levels still appear weaker than they ought. Owing to Blu-ray’s higher bit rate the visuals marginally tighten up and grain tends to look just a tad more natural than gritty as it did on DVD. But overall, the improvements are marginal at best. Booooooring! Disappoooooointing! The audio is 5.1 DTS and not terribly prepossessing. Again: old elements/same quality. An audio commentary and three featurettes exploring ‘the making of’ and ‘lasting impact’ of the film round out our enjoyment. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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