Analysis of Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)

            The film, Midnight Cowboy directed by John Schlesinger was based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel of the same title. This movie was utterly important in its days because it was the first X-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It has also been recognized for preservation, as it is a way of preserving culture. This shows the role this movie played in those days. Its blatant expression of sexual experiences gives the movie a unique taste. The director of this film was trying to express the livelihood in cultures that existed in those years. He addresses the sexual immorality that faced the culture and why expectations of making quick cash in New York City often failed. The expression of feeling and emotion is brought out in this film in an extreme way (Moon, 27). It also shows how friendship can exist amidst the most difficult circumstances.

The movie is based on the life of Joe Buck who is a young man who leaves Texas for New York in search of better opportunities to make money. He thought that he would make cheap money by selling himself to rich women in the city. The first appearances of Joe are in the bus to New York where flashbacks of his life serve to give an introduction of his character. In his struggle for survival, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo a con artist who at first cons him but they later become best friends. Joe has no home and when Ratso invites him to stay in his house, Joe is obliged to accept. Though the house is not very comfortable, they opt to stay together in order to fill their lonely lives. Their growing friendship is a major focus in this film. They continue to live together and engage in different activities mostly illegal together.

The opening scene creates a country feeling that is to be broken later. This scene is meant to give us a feel of where Joe was coming from. Joe is displayed as a young, naive pretty boy who works at Miller’s restaurant. He is fed up with the dishwashing work that he has been doing. He is actually preparing to leave the countryside for the city. His costume also shows what his perception of the city is like. He is dressed in a flashy outfit, a hat and cowboy boots. He also practices his resignation speech. In this part, he looks directly into the camera, which shows that he is not afraid and is ready to face life in the city (Mills, 130). He is rather restless and this shows his impatience to leave and go to the city. The background music also give the impression that Joe thinks that in the city, life will be easy. The song says that, “I’m going where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain”. Joe feels that in New York, his life will turn around and it will be easy to make money. He tells his colleague that he is going to find many rich, sexually hungry women who will pay him a fortune for his services in bed. He is in high spirits as he leaves the Texas hometown.

He boards a bus to New York and flashbacks of his life are given during this journey. By doing this, the director wants to give a historical background of Joe. He also wants the audience to understand the reasons behind Joe’s actions. The flashbacks reveal that Joe was raised by his grandmother when his mother was not around (Moon, 29). It also shows that he was always left alone after his grandmother went out with one of her boyfriends. His grandmother also emphasizes on the fact that he was a handsome boy and that he looked better than most of the other kids. The director gives a feel of why Joe is so full of sexual thoughts. In another part, graffiti reminds Joe of his former girlfriend, Annie. The film reveals some of her images, and this is nostalgic for Joe. There is a scene of the two engaging in sexual activities. Annie asks Joe to reaffirm his love for her because to her, Joe is the only man. She tells Him that he is the best among all men. These scenes are shot in a way that, they bring past emotions to Joe. The director also wants the audience to have an emotional feel of Joe’s past. Through the flashbacks, a person can understand his view of sex as a way of gaining cheap money. His grandmother and mother often left him to attend to their lovers and it is implied that they were prostitutes. Another character of Joe is brought out in his choice of radio stations to listen to. He is a Christian and he is listening to a faith healer on his radio. He is glad that they are almost reaching New York and listens to radio interviews that give the ladies’ view of an ideal man. According to the description, Joe believes that he is the perfect man to conquer the ladies. In these scenes, the director has shown that Joe is very optimistic about his trip and that he has put himself to believe that he is the ideal man to quench sexual desires of rich city women.

On his arrival to New York, Joe gets a room in Claridge hotel and decorates his room in readiness for his sexual partners. He then starts to visit joints where he expects rich women to hang out. Despite of showing his physical features, no one approaches him. He feels frustrated because this is not what he dreamt of. He approaches a woman who he thinks is a possible client and asks for directions as a pick up line. This does not work on the woman as she discovers his intentions. He then meets Cass, who looks really rich and he thinks his success has started. They have sex, but when he asks for money, Cass turns against him and asks for payment herself. He ends up paying her instead. The director uses this scene to bring out a sexually explicit scene. He achieves his aim of giving the film a touch of eroticism (Phillips, 154). It a scene that shows that being a ‘male hustler in New York is not really possible. In frustration, he meets Ratso Rizzo at a bar in the back streets. They engage in small talk and Rizzo learns that Joe is a ‘male hustler’. He immediately offers to help him by connecting him to people who know the rich women of the city. He tells Joe that he will make it possible for him to meet Mr. O’ Daniel who will show him the customers he needs. Joe pays him $20, which is all for nothing, since O’ Daniel does not help him. He is so angry with Rizzo and at this time, several flashbacks are shown. He remembers a scene where he and Annie were pulled out of a car by jealous men in Texas.

Joe goes back to his hotel room where he keeps busy by watching television shows that emphasize his problems. He feels so lonely and desperate. His hopes have been crashed because New York has not been the way he expected. He thought that he would make money easily but now he has run out of the money he had. He cannot imagine going back to his old dishwashing job. Eventually he is evicted from the hotel room and is left homeless. The following morning, Joe meets Ratso at a café and brings out his anger following being conned. Ratso is very apologetic and can only offer Joe accommodation as a way of repaying for his mistakes. They use a back entrance to the house since it is fenced. This is a convenient place for them to live because they do not pay rent. The house is crowded and untidy but they do not seem to notice such things. Ratso also says that there is no heating system but he hopes to have left by winter. As Joe takes a nap, another flashback is shown. This time is of how he and his girlfriend Annie were raped (Moon, 32). This nightmare really frightens Joe and wakes him up. At the start of their stay together, Joe does not believe that Ratso (whose real name is Rico) is doing this for no pay. He thinks that he is up to something fishy. Eventually, he learns to trust him and there is a great friendship between them. They start working together in stealing things to get money for food. As for Ratso, his only dream is to go to Florida. Ratso dies aboard a bus to Florida where his friend Joe was taking him before his death.

In this film, the director is very specific in terms of capturing the sounds and the settings of every scene. When in a street, it is possible for a viewer to feel the real essence of that street. The audience can really relate to the settings because they are so direct. The camera is always brought close to the object or person being captured in a magnificent way (Phillips, 159). By using this close range shots, the camera is able to capture the reality of every scene. For example, the camera so close to the sweaty face of Rizzo that a person watching the movie may imagine smells of the sweat. This creates a more real perspective for the audience. Every scene in this movie is brought so close to the camera that it creates a sense of keenness and focus on specific parts of a scene. The intense of the sexual scenes is also part of the director’s work. This is especially seen in the violent rape scene that leaves the audience distraught and shocked. The director brings out these intense scenes to create an emotional connection with the audience. The unscripted display of nudeness also adds to the sexual allure in the film. In this film, Schlesinger brings out the sexual activities that were affecting the American culture at that time (Mills, 132).

Another concept that the director uses in the film is use of flashbacks. Joe’s past life is displayed in terms of flashbacks. The experiences that led to the events that occur in this film are narrated in flashbacks. The director uses them to bring out the aspect of how the past affected Joe’s current actions (Moon, 38). His childhood with a mother and a grandmother who were prostitutes might have led to his interest in the same. He assumed that he would make money through having sex with rich women. This also brings out the misconception that life in the city was much easier than that of the countryside. Joe’s enthusiasm to go to the city portrayed the life that was evident in those days. He had imagined a life full of riches and fun but this was never to be. He had a terrible time in the city and this film was a lesson for all those who wanted to come to the city with the notion that life was easier there. The director achieves this by showing the kind of life Joe lived after his expectations failed. He ended up getting involved in petty crimes with the company of his friend Ratso. The director also brings out a form of ironic friendship between Joe and Ratso. Ratso conned Joe money the first day they met but this does not hinder their friendship. During the time they live together, they commit petty crimes together and an audience may wonder if this is the basis of their friendship. For both of them, their friendship breathes a new lease into their lives, as they had been lonely all their lives. The director achieves to bring an odd sense of humor into a serious film.




















Works Cited

Mills, Katie. The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction and Television. Carbondale: Southern IllinoisUniv. Press, 2006. Print

Moon, Michael. “Outlaw Sex and the ‘Search for America’: Representing Male Prostitution and Perverse Desire in Sixties Film (My Hustler and Midnight Cowboy).” Quarterly Review of Film & Video. Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, 27-40. Print

Phillips, Gene, John Schlesinger,Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 1981. Print

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