Can we count 1969 as being part of the 1970s? That is the year Midnight Cowboy came out, number forty-three on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list. That is one spot before the infinitely superior The Philadelphia Story (1940). So far, there have been only a couple movies that I have not understood the reason for AFI valuing them as they do. Midnight Cowboy does not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as seven some of those lesser quality ones. It is not as bad as A Clockwork Orange (1971), but at least that one had a point. Midnight Cowboy has none. I am not saying this to be controversial or flippant. It begins with Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man who leaves Texas to travel to New York City. He does so because he wants to become a “hustler.” Essentially this means that he is a male prostitute. The problem is that he is terrible at it. His latent Southern kindness has him accepting no money for his, ahem, services, even giving away what little he has to those in need. He then meets the equally inept, but slightly skilled thief Enrico Salvatore “Rico” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who Joe calls Ratso. After conning Joe out of $20, Ratso is found once more by Joe. From there, Ratso agrees to be Joe’s manager, attempting to bring in clients. What Ratso really wants is to go to Florida, but none of his efforts to get Joe “work” materialize. Eventually, they are randomly asked to go to some kind of psychedelic party where Joe meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro). She gives Joe the first business he has had in months, though they spend a strange night that involves playing Scribbage among other, er, activities. He believes his luck has turned around until he returns to the hovel he shares with Ratso and finds his, um . . . friend’s(?) health deteriorating. Thus, instead of continuing with his new pursuits, Joe instead hustles an old man, murders him, and boards a bus with Ratso bound for Miami. Ratso dies just as they are getting to the city limits. The end.
If you have read other reviews here on The Legionnaire, you may have noticed something different thus far about this discussion of Midnight Cowboy. It is because I do not wish to linger long upon it. It is a worthless piece of cinema and the only reason I am saying anything about it is because of my commitment to completing AFI’s list. Once I begin something, I am not keen on quitting before it is finished. Even though I skimped on my usual synopsis, there is really nothing else to say. Nothing of note happens. Joe goes to New York, fails to be the hustler he envisions, and ends up in Miami. Along the way, there are a few Christian images, including a brief moment when you see somebody who I am assuming is supposed to be the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen asking if God is dead. Of course He is not, but when you watch movies from this era as I have recently, you can see that filmmakers at this time certainly wondered. St. Ignatius of Loyola once said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who disbelieve, no amount of proof is sufficient.” Films from this era bear out the wisdom of these words. At a time of upheaval like this one, people wanted God to come down from the Heavens and smite the evildoers like something out of the Old Testament. This did not happen, and cities continued to degrade. This film and others like it attest to this phenomenon. In this manner, the nun you see sitting on the bus next to Joe, the Jesus shrine imbedded into a person’s door, or the St. Christopher medal Joe is given at the end are all a joke in the eyes of the director, John Schlesinger. This makes the film utterly tragic. One might look at the way Joe takes care of Ratso as an indication of a Christian act, but Joe is no sympathetic character despite his manners. Throughout, he is ready to abandon Ratso at a moment’s notice, and then he kills a man. There is also his unclear background that is flashed back to throughout the proceedings. It is something involving a girl, a rape, and the police. Is he fleeing from justice? Was he abused by his grandmother (Ruth White) as a child? I have no idea about any of these things as the movie leaves these matters unclear. Regardless, Joe chooses to not live virtuously and then commits a more serious crime. Thus, at the end, is he actually sad for Ratso? It is a fair question, but the movie ends with them still on the bus and Joe looking little different than he has the whole time. This is all a very long way of saying: do not see this movie.