Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by John Schlesinger
John Schlesinger’s landmark film Midnight Cowboy celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate the occasion it’s going to be re-released in a number of cinemas UK-wide selected by the BFI. Michael Childers, the directors assistant and photographer on the film, will be in London to support the release and will take part in a Q&A at BFI Southbank on Friday 13th September. FilmBusters were lucky enough to be invited along to a screening of the impeccable 4K digital restoration on Monday evening.
What a transfer it is! The ever unique grainy look of the 70s is retained but with stunningly detailed enhancements. Jon Voight’s naïve Joe Buck looks particularly fresh-faced while Dustin Hoffman’s Rico (Ratso) looks more like his rodent name-sake than ever before. For Schlesinger, whose background was in documentary filmmaking, it was important for the gritty and seedy side of New York to shine through. It’s ironic then that such a filthy New York should pop more than ever on the big screen thanks to this restoration.
Even more impressive are the sound levels. The dialogue is clean, crisp and intelligible. For all the greatness we experience watching films from the mid-20th century, audio levels were never the strongest. Many will switch on the subtitles when home-viewing. Well that’s not the case in the restoration at all. But it's not just the dialogue which is stronger, the stunning soundtrack is all the more emotive thanks to the care taken here. From the moment Fred Neil’s vocals ooze through the speakers for his heart-rending performance of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ you are transported to a unique time and place. Maybe that’s the late 60s or maybe its just back to the first time you caught Midnight Cowboy on VHS or DVD. John Barry’s score is giving just as much love and attention, it’s really a beautiful piece of work.
1969 marked the start of a cultural shift in filmmaking, with lifestyles and personalities previously swept under the rug, suddenly unearthed and thrust to the centre of frame. Midnight Cowboy was given an X-rating in the US, a medal normally awarded to films of a more pornographic nature. The reasoning was that it featured at its core a ‘homosexual frame of reference’. Or what John Wayne more callously called ‘a story about two fags’. A great smack in the face to both the censors and the phoney cowboy himself then, that Midnight Cowboy should go on to become the first and only X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
It’s to the films credit, that restoration or no restoration, 50 years later new audiences are still as thrilled by it as long-time fans. My FilmBusters colleague who I was sat next to in the screening appeared to have fallen in love with it more than I ever had! Thanks to the BFI for breathing new life into cinematic history and giving modern audiences a reminder that ‘they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore’.