Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 6 6 May 1970
For the second time this year I have been asked to review a film about which one would imagine comment to be superfluous. Cooler souls than I may render judgements more substantial than hollow squeaks of approbation, but John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy has me in its grip and no mere statement of approval will suffice. Pause therefore to consider for a moment the function of a critic and his reaction to a film such as this. Given a deadline something more liberal than was attendant here, one would doubtless be able to develop a fluid and convincing case on behalf of Midnight Cowboy. For myself such a task is largely specious, since I am primarily interested in drawing to the reader's attention films which he should have seen but didn't (e.g. A Thousand Clowns) and films which he didn't like but should have, or rubbishing his fond notions about films which he mistakenly considers to be great. None of these conditions appear to apply to Midnight Cowboy. There is no doubt that the film will reach a wide audience. It has going for it something of a reputation, enhanced by a word of mouth campaign already under way and (for the mugs) the recent bestowal of Academy Awards. Furthermore, I am convinced of the film's worth to a degree where I am not at all interested in trying to convert those whose opinions are different. Midnight Cowboy will be seen and applauded by most regular or occasional filmgoers, which is why the task in this instance strikes me as redundant. Still, there seems to be some virtue in prodding a few cloddish minds to reflection.
Comes the further crunch. My reactions to the film are purely emotional and personal, despite its many aspects that can be listed and agreed upon as being brilliant. To say that the saga of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizza moved me deeply is not to say anything that would clarify someone else's similar feeling, but Joe and Ratso are the heart of the matter, and no amount of excellent bric-a-brac can save the film if this central relationship fails. Fortunately the characters are both beautifully written and played. Joe Buck is more of an innocent than some critics would have him, slightly cretinous perhaps, but still a 'personality struggling to be born', as John Coleman so aptly puts it. John Voigt is perfect as the flashy, gum-chewing hustler, a dude in the frontier of the metropolis. Although in some ways Ratso has the limelight in terms of appeal, Joe is the more interesting character. The various flashbacks, whether memory or fantasy, hint at a psychological explanation (the scenes of the young boy with his grandmother) as well as explicitly recalling a confused incident where both Joe and his girl appear to have been gang-banged. The brash and confident youth succumbs to the squalor of New York and its inhabitants, finally seeking a vestige of refuge in the limping, tubercular Ratso, presumably a creature of the gutter yet clinging to some remnants of dignity.
Dustin Hoffman, as if reacting against the vapid part handed him in The Graduate, puts all his heart and talent into the playing of Ratso, and the result is one of the finest pieces of character acting in American films (stiff competition there). John Schlesinger observes the reluctant, developing bond between Ratso and Joe with great sensitivity. The quintessence of the relationship is found in the short, intense scene on the stairs at the party. Ratso, on the point of collapse, makes pathetic, feeble gestures in the direction of sprucing himself up. Joe props him against the wall and mops the profuse sweat off his face and head. Suddenly Ratso reaches out and holds Joe who, apparently oblivious to this desperate affection, continues his gum-chewing, patter, and mopping operations. Here, in one image, is the guts of the film, a clinging love in the wilderness. Joe himself finally gets caught up in Ratso's plight to the extent that he beats up (or worse) a queer and robs him to pay for their fare to life-giving Florida. This morally worrying sequence is easily the most horrifying in the film, since not even Ratso's need seems to justify the pain and indignity meted out to the ageing, sympathetically-played homosexual. Ratso, however, does not get to see the beaches and sun of which he has dreamed, as he dies only a few miles from his destination. The touch of the floral shirt around the wracked body is the final heartbreak.
Midnight Cowboy is clearly John Schlesinger's best film to date, far removed in setting and stature from those boring old kitchen sink films with their posturing proles and special pleading. It's cause for some satisfaction that British directors can go to the States and make such marvellous films (Bullitt, Point Blank, Petulia), and at the same time portray dramatic aspects of America hitherto unrevealed. Schlesinger's present film, for example, seems like the definitive statement about New York, but perhaps this is because the social ills seen here are part of our preconceptions about that city. Someone complained that Schlesinger could not leave the ills alone, but there is no doubt that the film's cumulative power derives in part from the fact that there is no let-up for Joe and Ratso, that they are being ground under (and none too slowly at that) by the sordidness of their surroundings. Waldo Salt's script treats their situation lightly at times, such moments of wit (quite frequent now I come to think about it) restraining and yet highlighting the film's ultimate tragedy. It's all there to be seen, uncut, explicit, intensely moving, and deserving our full and unrepentant involvement. Superb entertainments like this are rare, but their presence makes movie-going, and life, more worthwhile.