Movie Project #23: Midnight Cowboy [1969]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

Midnight Cowboy [1969]
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Waldo Salt (screenplay), James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Running Time: 113 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had heard so much about this film over the years, and it has a longstanding reputation as one of the finest American films of the 1960s.

Accolades: Won three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay), nominated for four other Oscars (Best Actor – Hoffman and Voight, Best Supporting Actress – Miles, Best Film Editing), six BAFTA awards, National Film Registry

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Watching the film 40+ years later, it’s a bit surprising that it managed to snag such a controversial rating. Obviously, times have changed, but there is little in this film that seems shocking, even for its time period.

Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, a naive young Texan who quits his job as a dishwasher, packs his bags and heads to New York City in hopes of being a male prostitute. Once there, his classic cowboy look draws more laughs than anything else, and he struggles to make ends meet. He does manage to make a new friend, however: Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a similarly down-on-his-luck grifter. Ratso has a bum leg and an undisclosed illness, and his current place of residence is a condemned building.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

Joe and Ratso form an unlikely bond, perhaps driven by their loneliness and shared dreams of getting rich and moving to Florida. The two men become business partners of sorts, and they work together to hustle their way through the urban jungle that is 1969 New York.

What drew me into Midnight Cowboy were the fantastic lead performances from Voight and Hoffman. Both play incredibly complex characters. Joe’s naivete is heartbreaking, but it’s hard not to be charmed by his confidence and Southern drawl. I can’t think of another character like him, and Voight plays this masterfully. It is Hoffman, however, who truly impresses. Just two years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Hoffman puts together an even better performance here. Ratso is such a depressing character — a dirty, disgusting shell of a man that certainly lives up to his nickname. Yet Hoffman manages to make him *likable*, eliciting great sympathy as he aimlessly drifts through life.

Midnight Cowboy [1969]

In many ways, Midnight Cowboy feels like the perfect transition from the free-spirited 1960s into the dark, gritty 70s. Joe Buck seems like a relic of a different time, and the poor guy has no idea what he’s getting into with the seedy underbelly of New York City. The grimy city streets were used to perfection in many 70s films (i.e. The French Connection, Taxi Driver, etc.), but this serves as something of a precursor to this decade.

As such, John Schlesinger’s film is an interesting curiosity of its time. There are a few issues that plagued other post-Graduate films — Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” is played a few too many times, and the film could have done without one or two flashbacks — but this is 100% worth seeing because of its two lead performances.

8/10

Movie Project #6: The Wild Bunch [1969]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The Wild Bunch [1969]
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Genre: Western
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan
Runtime: 145 minutes

The Wild Bunch starts with a bang and ends with a bang. Easily one of the most violent Westerns I have seen, the movie focuses on a group of aging outlaws during the final years of the Wild West. The leader of the bunch is Pike Bishop (Holden), a grizzled veteran that has established a code of honor within his unit. They aren’t exactly model citizens, but they maintain a level of camraderie even when disagreeing about certain issues.

The opening “bang” shows the group robbing a railroad office that is purported to contain a significant amount of silver. The robbery attempt goes wrong, however, when Deke Thornton (Ryan), a former partner of Pike, and his posse of bounty hunters show up. A massive gunfight ensues with dozens of innocent casualties. This massacre is something to behold, as gunfire is coming from every direction, and innocent bystanders are running for their lives. The action is given a frantic sense of urgence thanks to the quick editing and multiple camera angles used by director Sam Peckinpah. According to IMDB, the film in total contains 2,721 edits (roughly three seconds per shot). That’s impressive.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

Not everyone survives this battle, but Pike and the remaining members of the bunch (played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez) are able to escape the mayhem. They meet up with an old buddy, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), and hit the road to Mexico. It is here that they get caught up in the ongoing Mexican Revolution and take a job to intercept a weapons shipment from the U.S. Army.

During all of this, we learn a bit about Pike’s backstory, the betrayal by Thornton, and we see the sense of camraderie formed by this group of men who are struggling to adapt to the changes around them. As such, there are moments of quietness that some could find tedious, but I felt they were helpful in terms of character development. Even though these guys were not ideal human beings, I empathized with them, even with their flawed “code.”

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The second “bang” is most impressive. The movie culminates with a violent bloodbath of a battle, one that even uses a huge machine gun (as pictured above). The carnage is appalling, as once again innocent men and women are caught in the middle of the violence, but it is impressive in terms of its visual impact. This is the stuff of legends, and it caps off the movie with a fitting and fiery end.

The Wild Bunch is the first Peckinpah movie I have seen, but it certainly won’t be the last. This is unlike any other Western I have come across so far, and its long runtime never feels like a burden. Quite frankly, this is another great Western in a decade that’s full of ’em.

8/10