4.5 out of 5 stars

Now and then, a film is made that portrays contemporary society unflinchingly and uncompromisingly. These films are incisive, penetrating, and critical. Midnight Cowboy was such a film.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a dishwasher in Texas, 1965. However, he believes a promising future awaits him in New York, where he can woo wealthy women with his Southern charm—for cold, hard cash. Dreaming of becoming a successful gigolo, Joe decamps to the Big Apple. But he soon discovers that the world outside Texas isn’t all sunshine and roses, and falls in with street-smart conman Enrico Salvatore ‘Rico’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), also known as ‘Ratso’ by his less-than-friendly acquaintances.

Midnight Cowboy hasn’t aged a day. The everyday struggles of ordinary people and the social issues of late-1960s America are on full display. The performances stagger, the editing and cinematography amaze, and Waldo Salt’s screenplay is often unapologetically visceral; Midnight Cowboy is by no means an easy watch.

Perhaps most impressively of all in this generation-defining classic, director John Schlesinger crafts a piece that reimagines a coming-of-age drama in the most tragic of ways. He simultaneously combines an intense character study with a scathing critique of superficial society. By all accounts, Midnight Cowboy showcases how the 1960s, and the illusions that defined them, were coming to a grinding halt; something was rotten in the state of New York.

Of course, it doesn’t start that way. Before his trip, Joe couldn’t be more excited. He sings gleefully in the shower, excitedly informs his colleagues he’s heading up north, and innocently chats to anyone he can on the long bus journey. However, it’s clear from the very beginning that his light-hearted, garrulous demeanour is a trait few share; the unfriendly travellers lack his naive enthusiasm.

It becomes apparent quite quickly that Joe isn’t the brightest spark and, throughout the film, his dim-witted optimism is shown to be painfully misplaced. He’s exploited (either emotionally, financially, or both), and it’s clear from his expression that he’s out of his depth; watching the innocent lad from the country come to this realisation is heartbreaking. Although he expects to find instant success, Joe quickly finds himself lonely, lost, and penniless.

Worse still, the city disillusions the young man faster than he can blink. A figure lies face down on the pavement, with commuters and busy urbanites walking past him indifferently. Joe, too, succumbs to the general sense of apathy, leaving the unconscious man in his prone position. New York is a metropolis that crushes his individuality; it seems the American Dream cannot survive in the urban jungle.

Indeed, Joe soon proves himself to be the least successful gigolo in the history of New York City. After picking up Cass (Sylvia Miles), a middle-aged woman on Park Avenue, she’s shocked and throws a tantrum when he asks her for money. Rather than simply leaving, he gives her $20 to appease her. His lack of business acumen is only worsened by his emotional fragility; his desire to please others is shown to be the foolish trait of a sap.

Throughout constant setbacks and mounting failures, Joe frequently experiences flashbacks to his youth in Texas. We’re privy to different periods of his life: as a seven-year-old boy, a pre-teen, and a young adult. These also represent some of the most interesting artistic choices for the film. The sequences are depicted in a mixture of styles, ranging from psychedelic colouring and tints, to a gothic horror aesthetic with macabre shadows and trees buffeted by the wind in a frightful storm. But perhaps more importantly, these grainy flashbacks often contradict each other, forcing us to question: how reliable is Joe as a narrator?

This question becomes most relevant when we try to understand what his flashbacks are revealing about his relationship with his previous girlfriend, Annie (Jennifer Salt). Sometimes he remembers the pair of them being attacked and raped by a gang of cowboys. However, on other occasions, he’s among the cowboys chasing her through the dunes of Texas—so which memory is true and which is false? 

Is Joe remembering a trauma, or is the memory of the event a coping mechanism designed to bury his guilty conscience? I would argue for the former, but the veracity of either possibility is never truly revealed. Schlesinger chooses to keep the recesses of Joe’s mind vague, murky, and ambiguous. He achieves this by imbuing the flashbacks with a surreal, fantastical quality. Joe’s trauma is depicted in a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic haze.

Schlesinger also employs a similar visual style for many New York sequences, particularly when Joe is feeling overwhelmed and out of his depth. Some of these are shot in a chilling black-and-white, leaving audiences unsure of what’s real and what isn’t. In this, Schlesinger appears to borrow heavily from the French Surrealists, with the scene of Joe chasing Rizzo through the metro being visually reminiscent of the unnerving chase in Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928).

Here, particularly, he’s aided by his editor, Hugh A. Robertson. Although he had only edited three films before Midnight Cowboy, Robertson’s work is so impressive that it deservedly won the BAFTA for ‘Best Editing’ (it was also nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Best Editing’, making Robertson the first African American to be nominated in that category). Robertson weaves Schlesinger’s symbolically laden imagery into elaborate, unsettling montage sequences reminiscent of Eisenstein’s films or the cinema of Luis Buñuel.

Whilst Robertson creates a visceral whirlwind through his editing, his work as a sound designer is arguably more impressive. As the images disorientate us, the soundscape acts as an illusory bridge for our comprehension; the sound appears to reveal the truth of Joe’s real experience, while also augmenting the ambiguous nature of his subjective experience and unreliable memory. Joe’s distortion of reality is highlighted by jarring shifts in the soundscape: the hustle and bustle of New York streets gently fizzles out and an ethereal tone fades in. We can never be entirely sure whose version of events we are witnessing, nor why; Robertson’s editing is superbly delusive.

We later see that Rizzo has his own hallucinations, dreaming of a life far removed from his squalor in New York. He yearns to leave for Florida, where the necessities of life are readily available: “The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did ya know that? That’s a fact! In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there.” Rizzo’s lunch consists of his stolen coconut, and when Joe tries to crack it open for him by smashing it under a closing window, it falls and shatters on the streets of New York—much like their dreams.

Their constant descriptions of Florida as a haven are gut-wrenching; we know little will change for them, and their problems will be waiting for them back in Miami if they ever do manage to scrape together the cash for the trip. Yet, the grass is always greener. Much like Joe, Rizzo has a chronic desire to escape to a faraway land, where his reputation and memories of home can’t follow him. The two men, though not seeming it at first, make a suitable pair.

In this respect, the film wouldn’t be what it is without the sensational performances delivered by the two leads. Voight’s facial expressions are superb, imparting Joe’s growing sense of angst and fear that he’s made a terrible mistake by leaving Texas. He subtly conveys Joe’s slow wit without overdoing it, often showing a childlike discomfort with a furrowed brow. Although he gave an Oscar-winning performance in Coming Home (1978), I would consider his role as Joe to be his best performance.

Then you have Dustin Hoffman, who delivers such a believable performance as the down-and-out Rizzo that he convinced a producer he was genuinely homeless after accosting him on the street. His portrayal of Rizzo is a world away from his character in The Graduate (1967)—perhaps that’s what happens when you don’t invest in plastics… Though uninterested in plastics himself, Hoffman excels as the ultimate grifter, with his signature line being: “That’s a hell of a way to collect insurance…”

However, it’s Rico’s impassioned pleas to be called by his real name that saddens us the most. Joe refers to him as ‘Ratso’, a nickname Rico earned through his life as a con artist. But Rico doesn’t want to become synonymous with his abominable living conditions, for his very name to be emblematic of the detritus he lives beside. When he reveals his father’s fate, we understand why: poverty has hounded him all his life. That’s why, when Rico tearfully confesses to Joe that he can no longer stand, it feels like a major blow; their adventure is ever so gradually grinding to a halt, and they barely even got started.

One of the film’s core themes is the inevitability of social decline. The 1960s may have been a lot of fun, but the decade is drawing to a close and the party’s over. The libertine, pseudo-philosophical axioms of the counterculture are shown to be hollow. They don’t get rich quick, but instead, they incrementally sink deeper and deeper into total squalor. Penury is the only constant in their story—there’s no lasting success for our streetwise duo.

Considering this film is set in a period of free love, it depicts sex in a rather disturbing light. Joe’s first conquest in the Big Apple is filmed with a frantic editing style. As they fool around on the bed, Cass repeatedly sits on the remote control, changing the channels. Robertson cuts between the lovemaking and the TV. One programme shows an arcade machine and, in the first of many visual euphemisms that Schlesinger creates throughout the film, coins burst forth from the payout slot.

The entire sequence appears too deliberate to be a coincidence. A game show, an exercise programme, a religious channel, some adverts for branded foods and detergents, and a slew of old films appear on the screen. But what is John Schlesinger suggesting here? That sex has been commodified in the same way as our media? Or perhaps that these flings are meaningless, as easily switched on and off as changing the channel? Perhaps it means nothing at all, yet it all feels as though a message is trying to be conveyed.

Schlesinger’s film also highlights the vast wealth disparity that existed—and continues to exist—in a time often depicted as idyllic, spiritually explosive, socially progressive, and endlessly fun. As the two are invited to a party, Rizzo laments: “I ain’t dressed for a party…” He knows he’ll stick out like a sore thumb amongst wealthy socialites.

And he does. The partygoers aren’t as socially progressive as they like to pretend, constantly and rudely drawing attention to Rizzo’s shabby clothes and unhealthy complexion. Meanwhile, Joe meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) and the pair begin flirting in a daze. Their encounter, though magical to them, is vacuous to anyone sober; perhaps this era wasn’t as spiritually explosive as it claimed to be.

First, Joe dreams of moving to New York, becoming a successful gigolo, and running the streets of Manhattan. After this is proven to be a chimera, he and Rizzo change their tack, desperately trying to escape to Florida. They both dream of outrunning the social problems that plague them—but it’s time to wake up. The 1960s were a hazy reverie from which they are being rudely awakened, a trance that is dissipating to reveal a grim reality they must face: the seedy underbelly of New York City.

Joe’s journey begins and ends on a bus. Curiously, Hoffman’s breakout role in The Graduate also ended on a bus. Setting the denouements of these stories on public transport seems a fitting ending, as both films seem to have an anxiously inquisitive atmosphere at their conclusion. Namely, both narratives appear to ask: where are we going? What is the final destination for those of us who are travelling down this path?

Both films are coming-of-age dramas, although Schlesinger’s tale of urban poverty is considerably more harrowing. As Joe discards his cowboy gear at a petrol station, he believes he has learnt a great deal. And indeed he has, but his sojourn in New York wasn’t to be his final lesson: as he turns to Rizzo, he realises that his friend has died, finally succumbing to ill health. I remember being very shocked watching this ending when I was younger, but it has lost none of its impact years later.

The film remains viscerally gripping because it documents the demise of a historical moment. Contemporary attitudes are shown to be well-intentioned but woefully misguided; perceptions will change soon. Joe’s New York adventure acts as a microcosm for much of Western society, which viewed the 1960s as a period of significant progress, a time when the terminus of social advancement seemed within reach. Joe’s uncomfortable realisation in the film’s denouement reflects our own: we still have a long way to go, and have no real idea where the bus is heading. Hopefully, at least, there will be some sunshine and coconuts.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: John Schlesinger.
writer: Waldo Salt (based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy).
starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro, John McGiver, Ruth White, Sylvia Miles & Barnard Hughes.