Midnight Cowboy


United Artists/MGM

Directed by John Schlesinger

Produced by Jerome Hellman

Screenplay by Waldo Salt

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy

I’ve probably said this before so if the next couple of paragraphs sound familiar feel free to drop on down and read the rest of this review, okay?  You won’t hurt my feelings.  One of the reasons I love movies is that I feel by watching them you can get more of a feel of a period of history in terms of fashion, slang, societal and political attitudes than you can from reading a dry text.   Since the movie was made and acted by people who were living those attitudes and dressing in those fashions and using that slang the impact you gain from watching the movie can probably give you a better sense of what people and the world was like during that period.  I watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY one weekend and the main thing that I came away with was that the movie pretty much accurately shows what New York was like in 1969 when it resembled something out of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” especially the way 42end Street used to be before it became Disneyfied.  The 42end Street/Times Square  shown in MIDNIGHT COWBOY  is the 42end Street I remember when my buddies and I used to go there on Saturdays to watch three Kung Fu movies for three dollars and the pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, junkies and drug dealers ruled Times Square. I know it’s hard to believe now but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s tourists visiting New York were actually warned to stay out of the Times Square area.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a tall, lanky, good-looking Texan who quits his dead end job at a roadside diner, packs up his stuff in an ugly cowhide suitcase and hops a bus to New York.  He thinks he’ll be a natural in his chosen profession of being a male prostitute since he believes that New York is full of rich old women who will throw handfuls of money at him for sex.  He’s full of confidence and energy and he can’t wait to get to The Big Apple where he dreams of making it big.

His confidence is soon busted into splinters because he soon realizes that he’s simply not smart enough, street savvy enough or tough enough to make it in New York.  His pathetic attempts to pick up women are met with disgust, outrage or gales of laughter at his wildly out-of-place cowboy outfit of huge Stetson hat, fringed leather jacket, sequined shirt and garish boots.  And when he does finally score, the woman he picks up (Sylvia Miles) makes him feel so guilty that he actually ends up paying her for their afternoon of recreational sex.

Joe meets the lowlife street hustler Enrico ‘Ratzo’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who tells Joe that he needs a manager to set him up with high-class women and Ratzo cons Joe out of $20 bucks (remember, this is 1969…$20 was a whole lotta money back then) then leaves him high and dry.  Joe soon runs out of money and is locked out of his hotel room.  Joe is forced to prostitute himself to a gay student (Bob Balaban) where they have sex in a 42end Street movie theatre and the student stiffs Joe on the money he promised him.  Joe can ‘t even bring himself to take the student’s watch as compensation and he’s now at rock bottom, reduced to eating crackers he finds on restaurant tables.

Joe again runs into Ratzo who offers to share his apartment in a condemned building with no heat and no electricity. The two total losers form a bond of friendship as Ratzo teaches Joe how to commit petty crimes in which they steal food and pull off really minor cons that mainly consist of them distracting their marks, grabbing whatever they can and running like hell.  Ratzo’s attempts to become Joe’s pimp gets Joe thrown out of a Park Avenue hotel when he propositions   They have no money, no food and Ratzo contracts pneumonia. Things start to look up when Joe is invited to a drug party and he meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) who actually pays him for sex and indeed, promises to hook him up with some of her friends.  But Ratzo’s health is rapidly deteriorating and after Joe has an encounter with a middle aged homosexual (Barnard Hughes) that turns violent, the two friends decide to leave New York and head to Florida where Ratzo dreams of a better life for both of them.  Let’s just say it doesn’t happen the way the way Ratzo plans.

I don’t mind watching depressing movies about lowlifes, prostitutes, hustlers and degenerates if they’re well made.  But MIDNIGHT COWBOY simply isn’t a well-made movie.  It’s a total mystery to me how this movie won for Best Picture.  There must have been awfully slim pickings that year because outside of Dustin Hoffman’s performance I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that you should see this movie.  I like Jon Voight a lot but his Joe Buck is simply too damn stupid to live and it’s a miracle he survives as long in New York as he does.  And there are these highly confusing hallucinations/flashbacks/dreams that Joe has in which he either A) rapes his girlfriend, B) is falsely accused by his girlfriend of raping her or C) both he and his girlfriend are raped by Joe’s drunken buddies.

Add to that there are even still more flashbacks of Joe’s childhood concerning his grandmother who may or may not have been a prostitute herself and may or may not have sexually molested Joe.  There is one scene where the young Joe is in bed with his grandmother and a man and they’re all plainly naked but you’re never sure if this is something that actually happened to Joe or if he’s dreaming it or what.  It’s unnecessarily confusing and eventually I gave up trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.  Add to that the scene where Joe turns violent out of frustration over being stiffed yet again and beats the piss outta the Barnard Hughes character.  The movie doesn’t make it clear if Joe kills the middle-aged homosexual after robbing him.  Ratzo asks him a number of time during their bus ride to Florida if Joe killed the man or not but Joe never gives a clear answer one way or the other.

The supporting actors don’t make any impression at all outside of Brenda Vaccaro who in her day was one of the hottest actresses working.  But here she seems to be acting in another movie altogether here.  Thankfully she gives the movie some much needed energy during the last half hour and Sylvia Miles displays a really remarkable pair of legs early on as Joe’s first pickup.  Dustin Hoffman is the only real reason to see this movie as this has his famous “Hey!  I’m walkin’ HERE!” scene and he captures the despair and hopelessness of Ratzo’s poor sad life perfectly.  And I was driven absolutely apeshit with how many times “Everybody’s Talkin” sung by Harry Nilsson is played.

So should you see MIDNIGHT COWBOY?  Only if you’re interested in it purely to see Dustin Hoffman or to watch it as a cultural artifact of a New York that no longer exists.  Otherwise, it’s a pretty pointless movie and by the time you get to the end and one of the main characters dies you might be like me and breathe a sigh of relief.

Rated R: When MIDNIGHT COWBOY had its original theatrical run it was rated X for subject material, nudity and drug use but since then, the rating has been lowered to R and that’s still laughable.  I find it hard to believe that even back in 1969 this material was considered controversial.  If anything, there is more attention paid to the despair of the life Joe and Ratzo live than to sex or drugs.  There are a couple of sex scenes but they’re so tame there’s nothing erotic or titillating about them.  Maybe that was the whole point and I’m just a sleazy so and so.  Anyway, there’s nothing in MIDNIGHT COWBOY that offended me except the utter naivety and stupidity of the Joe Buck character and I don’t think there’s anything that will offend you except poor movie making at its best.

P.S. MIDNIGHT COWBOY holds the distinction of being the only X rated movie to date to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

113 min.

Cotton Comes To Harlem

United Artists

Directed by Ossie Davis

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.

Written by Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl

Based on the novel by Chester Himes

A lot of people will ask me as what my influences were as a writer and while I have maybe half a dozen I can certainly point to, one of those half dozen has to be Chester Himes.  He was what I consider perhaps the best African-American writer of detective/crime fiction, having learned his trade in truly the hard way: he served 20 years in prison.  He started writing while in prison and after being paroled his career took off.  He wrote nine very successful novels about a pair of black Harlem detectives called Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson and it was most of those novels I read growing up.  A movie version of one of those novels, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM was made into a wildly successful movie during the blaxplotation boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s and even today, over 30 years later, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM stands as not only a worthy adaptation of the wonderfully gritty work of Chester Himes but also as a work of cinematic art.  Plain and simple: it’s a good movie.  It works not only as a superior example of the blaxploitation film but also as a crime/buddy cop/action/ film as well. It always cracks me up that most people who will claim they don’t like or haven’t seen blaxplotation movies will say that they have seen COTTON COMES TO HARLEM multiple times and love it.  Even today it’s  most certainly worth a viewing and I can heartily recommend it.

The Reverend Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) is the head of a Back To Africa movement that has gained a lot of support in the Harlem community and he’s about to take his movement national.  During a fundraising rally there’s a robbery and $187,000 dollars worth of donations goes missing.  So does Reverend O’Malley. NYPD Detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St Jacques) were at the rally and failed to stop the robbery even after a wild shootout and car chase.  Over the hindrance and objections of their superiors Gravedigger and Coffin Ed set out to get the money back, using their street smarts and knowledge of Harlem to navigate their way among pimps, hustlers, gangsters, Black Nationalist revolutionaries, prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies, gunmen and The Mafia.  And it’s an exciting and entertaining navigation as we go along with these two tough, wisecracking detectives every step of the way.  As their captain puts it they’re: “too quick with their fists, too flip with their tongues and they’re a couple of black maniacs sittin’ on a powderkeg!”  Now don’t you miss the days when a movie could have dialog like that and get away with?

Coffin Ed and Gravedigger figure that O’Malley is their best way to get to the money and they’re on the right track all right since O’Malley had been setting up a robbery with Calhoun (J.D. Cannon) who was supposed to make the robbery look like the work of a rival black militant group.  Calhoun botched it up and during the getaway was forced to hide the money in a bale of raw unprocessed cotton.  The bale of cotton fell into the hands of local junk dealer named Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx) who in turn sold it to somebody else.  Now Uncle Budd has gone up and died under mysterious circumstances so now nobody knows where the bale of cotton full of money is and so we spent the next highly entertaining and action filled 90 or so minutes following Coffin Ed, Gravedigger, The NYPD, The Mafia, the poor people rooked out of their money, Reverend O’Malley and his psychotic girlfriend Iris (Judy Pace) and anybody else who hears about this money chasing all over Harlem trying to find it and the question that everybody is asking is this; “What the hell is a bale of cotton doing in Harlem?”

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM still works today as a superior crime/cop buddy flick due to the strength of the direction by Ossie Davis who obviously had a lot of fun doing this movie and delighted in the Harlem locations and settings.  There are few cop movies that the authenticity of the neighborhood of Harlem as this one does and it works.  You’re right there with Coffin Ed and Gravedigger as they scour Harlem on the trail of the bale of cotton and they run into a wild and colorful mix of characters as they do so.  I also like how we see a lot of things that Ossie Davis as a director has in this movie that would become a staple of action/cop buddy movies in later films such as “Lethal Weapon” such as the bickering pair of heroes and the obligatory scenes where the pair of wildass cops are yelled at by their captain and even after they’re taken off the case they still work it.  There’s also a terrific use of humor in this movie that doesn’t interfere with the dramatic stuff and is wonderfully integrated into the life of the neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a cop movie that has the community so involved and integrated into the story the way Harlem is involved in how this particular case is resolved.

And the performances are a major part in the enjoyment of the movie.  Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques are simply excellent in their roles as the Harlem detectives and they play those roles as men who are total professionals who walk a fine line that black cops back in the 70’s must have had to walk.  They know how to play their white superiors to get what they want while serving justice and maintain their respect in the community.  There’s a great scene where they have to face down a street riot and turn away an angry mob based on the strength of their more than well-earned reputation on the street.  Godfrey Cambridge is the more relaxed of the two, more strategic, more thoughtful and using well placed humorous wit to defuse volatile situations while Raymond St. Jacques is a smoldering volcano of near psychotic rage which he displays in a scene near the end of the movie where he nearly beats the Reverend O’Malley to death.  And Calvin Lockhart walks away with the acting honors of this movie.  His Reverend O’Malley is a cunning schemer who plays everybody he can for anything he can and even when he’s looking down the barrel of a gun is still trying to be the playa.  And I certainly cannot forget to mention the remarkably beautiful Judy Pace who plays O’Malley’s girlfriend/partner who ends up committing murder for him and proves to be in her own way as dangerous as anybody else who is looking for the money.

So should you see COTTON COMES TO HARLEM?  Hell yes.  Despite it’s age it still works as a terrific movie full of humor, action, great performances, a tight crime story full of plot twists and the best thing about it is that it’s never boring, Yeah, some of the slang and the clothes and cars are outdated but the spirit of the movie is one that has still lasted.  If you’re a fan of buddy cop/crime/detective/action movies or if like me you remember the good ol’ days of blaxplotation or if you don’t remember them and want to see what a superior example of the genre was like, do yourself a favor and Netflix this one.

Rated R:  There’s some nudity here, thanks to Judy Pace which I didn’t mind at all and The ‘N’ word is used quite a bit.  I know in our PC times it might be frowned upon but I understand the time in which this movie was made and more importantly I understand the context in which it’s used so if I don’t mind I don’t see why you should.  But to each his or her own.

97 minutes