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.


Heat [1995]

Heat [1995]

Heat [1995]
Directors: Michael Mann
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

Heat is an epic crime film in every sense of the word. Michael Mann really went all out with this blockbuster, cashing in on his $60 million budget and getting the most out of the nearly three hour runtime. This Los Angeles-set movie is mainly focused on two men: Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), a veteran LAPD homicide detective, and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a lifelong criminal and expert robber. Both men live for one thing — the rush they get from their jobs — and their personal lives suffer from it. Once Hanna gets wind of McCauley’s criminal escapades throughout the city, he becomes fascinated by him and tracks him on his way to his biggest heist yet. The character development for these two characters is outstanding, and it is easy to become attached to both, even though one is clearly “good” and the other is “bad.”

The movie is aided by an unbelievably strong and star-studded cast. Seriously, this is a who’s-who of popular actors from the 90’s (although not restricted to that decade, obviously). De Niro frequently shares screen time with his group of thieves, which includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo and Kevin Gage. There are also small, but important, roles from Jon Voight, William Fichtner and Dennis Haysbert. Even a very young Natalie Portman is in this movie. Each of these characters has a fleshed-out storyline to make the viewer care about them, and that is impressive even with the movie’s extended running time.

And yeah, about that length. It took me a while to get around to this movie due to its prolonged running time. This is a long crime saga, and you have to be prepared to sit down for the full three hours to get through it. Is it worth watching all the way through? Yes, absolutely! While there are a number of subplots weaving in and out of the main storyline (some that probably could have been omitted), this is still very much an exceptional film due to excellent acting, a strong script and some downright badass scenes.

There are two scenes in particular that everyone talks about whenever Heat is brought up. One is the bank heist/shootout, an elongated gun battle that is quite possibly one of the best firefights ever recorded in film. The other is a sit-down scene where Pacino and De Niro have a cup of coffee, the very first time the actors have appeared together on screen. Much was made of this encounter when the movie came out, and it is still interesting to see it today. Both scenes are phenomenal, albeit in very different ways.

Some will cry that Mann went overboard with this movie, trying to cram too many stories into one film. I agree that a little probably could have been trimmed off the top, but I still very much enjoyed Heat. This is one of the best crime sagas that I have seen, and its frequent praise is well-deserved.