Watching John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” is an interesting, intellectually potent experience. In terms of filmmaking, it’s an all-around success: Schlesinger’s direction is layered and precise, the music (including Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”) is successful at establishing and maintaining the movie’s tone (which highlights the push-and-pull between optimism and cynicism), while the acting is absolutely extraordinary. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman’s performances are legendary of course, but it’s still a thrill to watch them work together here: Voight’s natural cadence is overtaken by a heavy-but-believable Texas drawl and his naivete is progressively replaced with a weary resignation, while Hoffman’s entire physical appearance is dictated by his character’s circumstances (including rotting teeth, a limp and an-ever present layer of filth and sweat on him) without distracting from the heartbreak of his longing. On an intellectual level, the film functions like a novel in some ways, with Schlesinger’s recurring flashback inserts establishing the characters’ backstories without interrupting the narrative, and providing a significant amount of exposition without spoon-feeding it to his audience. It’s particularly fascinating to witness the streets and overall vibe of New York City of the late 1960s, which is stripped of its romanticism and seems instead to be a dangerous, dirty and hopeless place, functioning like a character unto itself throughout. It’s an extraordinary character study that has much to say about economic strife and what we now understand as post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s an enduring classic that still packs a punch.
Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)