Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Midnight Cowboy'

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman star in 'Midnight Cowboy', directed by John Schlesinger

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman star in 'Midnight Cowboy', directed by John Schlesinger

Midnight Cowboy is a movie that knows it’s not in debt to its audience. In some films, every detail is tied off so neatly that the story feels formulaic and boring. Midnight Cowboy, by contrast, only gives the viewer what they absolutely need to know, and lets the viewer fill in the blanks. It’s the perfect approach for a movie that deals with the broken dreams and shattered lives of two men who aspired to be much more.

John Scheslinger’s Midnight Cowboy is a fascinating character study, a gritty movie with a tender core that displays some of the best film editing I’ve seen. Read on for my full review, including my ranking out of four stars!

We’re introduced to modern-day Texan “cowboy” Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naïve charmer who gives up his dead-end job in a Southern diner to seek his fortune in New York City. Joe, however, doesn’t intend to build up a business or be a Broadway star. Instead, he decides his best strategy is to rent himself out as a stud (or male prostitute, for the inexperienced) to high-society ladies.

Joe’s lack of knowledge about the big city gets him into trouble pretty quick. He runs out of money and can’t find an “in” with any of the women he was hoping to charm. He crosses paths with a seedy con man named Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), and despite a shaky introduction, the two become friends. Together, they travel the grimy underbelly of New York, launching get-rich-quick schemes and trying to stay alive. But Joe has to decide if this miserable existence is worth staying in a city that never wanted him to begin with.

Perhaps what’s most endearing about this movie is that it doesn’t make light of a pitiful situation. There are occasional moments that are perversely funny, in the way bad things sometimes are. On the whole, though, we’re faced with how far Joe has fallen, a lifetime apart from the excitement he feels when his treasured portable radio first picks up a New York station, early in the film. Even Ratzo, who’s a New York native, is in over his head. Yet the two men stumble on, because there’s nothing else they can do.

Some critics have said the merit of this story is that it's “heartbreaking”, and in a way, that's true. But what really grabs you in Midnight Cowboy is the persistent hope that a breakthrough is right around the corner. We get to know these two and sympathize with them.  We want Joe and Ratzo to strike gold and pull themselves out of the gutter (literally). No matter what the film throws at them, you keep watching to see if the tenth, or eleventh, or twelfth time’s the charm.

Hammering this emotional connection home are some brilliant visuals, linked by standout film editing. The inner yearnings of Joe and Ratzo, especially their occasionally confused desires for revenge, are expressed in “fun-house mirror” sequences that bend reality and flesh out the internal conflicts of the two leads.

At one point, Ratzo imagines himself holding court at a sunny Florida locale, because Joe is set to land a rich female client. When Joe gets the expected slap to the face, suddenly Ratzo’s dream sequence turns on him, perfectly communicating how his fantasy is crumbling around him.  These dream scenes are woven into the film in the same disjointed way as flashback sequences, creating an interesting stream-of-consciousness feel.

This approach came as a pleasant surprise, because I expected Midnight Cowboy to take a realist route to telling its story. It would have been easy for Schlesinger to make the movie that way. Instead, if Midnight Cowboy were made today, we’d call it an art house film; a movie with a unique voice that can’t be dropped into a particular sub-genre.

For its enduring story, remarkable visuals and lovably down-on-their-luck characters, Midnight Cowboy gets three and half stars out of four.

Have you seen Midnight Cowboy? If not, is this your first time hearing about it? For those who’ve seen the movie, what did you think? Did you get hooked on the characters and story, or did its bleak outlook turn you off? Join the conversation in the comments section. If this is the first of my Reviews of Classic Movies you’ve read, you can catch up on the rest of the series here:


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