The American Society of Cinematographers

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M I3
The Propositon
DVD Playback
Midnight Cowboy
Ryans Daughter
Unbearable Light...
ASC Close-Up
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Collector’s Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1, Monaural
MGM Home Video, $29.99

Almost 40 years before Brokeback Mountain, a similar degree of controversy surrounded the release of Midnight Cowboy, perhaps the original “gay cowboy movie.” From its stark opening shot of a dilapidated drive-in movie screen to the final shot of tropical bliss juxtaposed over a doomed couple, John Schlesinger’s drama, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, remains a unique and groundbreaking film.

Thrown together by chance in Manhattan’s seedy Times Square, a just-off-the-bus Texas hustler, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), and a crippled petty thief from the Bronx, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), form an unlikely pair. Savvy Ratso tries to assist Joe in his quest to be the ultimate ladies’ man, seeing a way for both of them to benefit. The two men eventually commit to each other as they travel through the darker side of Manhattan, finding only failure, and they begin to nurture the hope of escaping to Florida, where the tubercular Ratso can breathe “better air” and Joe can attend to lonely matrons.

When Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman decided to commit James Leo Herlihy’s novel Midnight Cowboy to the screen, they tapped a now legendary roster of talent that included formerly blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt and future ASC cinematographer Adam Holender (Panic in Needle Park, Blue in the Face). Holender had established a strong reputation in the commercial world but had yet to shoot a feature. In capturing the film’s worlds — seedy Manhattan, Joe’s Texas and Ratso’s Florida — he faced several challenges. He and Schlesinger felt the urban sequences should be grim and unpleasant, so the cinematographer underexposed his negative, creating a cool, grainy image that conveys the tone perfectly. For Joe’s flashbacks of Texas and Ratso’s many fantasies of Florida, Holender overexposed by as much as 2 stops to create a washed-out halo effect, heightening the dramatic contrast between those sequences and the urban material.

MGM Home Video’s recently released DVD of Midnight Cowboy does an admirable job of translating Holender’s work to the small screen. Although there have been several home-video incarnations of the picture, including an excellent Criterion laserdisc in 1992 and an even more impressive MGM laserdisc (which benefited from the studio’s restoration of the picture) in 1994, the only DVD incarnation prior to this was a single-platter, bare-bones edition released in 1999. MGM rectifies the situation with this new DVD transfer, which is certainly an improvement over the previous one. Holender’s work seems well represented, with much of the image strikingly clear and clean. There are deliberate instances of visible grain that appear correct in the transfer, which is generally very accurate. The sound is available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or the original monaural track. Both are fine, and the 5.1 mix only enhances the music and some minor frontal right- and left-channel sound effects.

The DVD’s supplements include an anecdotal and informative commentary track by Hellman and a rather pointless gallery of trailers for other MGM/Sony special editions, but no trailer for Midnight Cowboy. There is also a series of production stills and, tucked into the gatefold jacket, eight postcards featuring images from the film. (Criterion recently began adding postcards to its DVDs — is this a new industry trend?) There are also three short documentaries: the 30-minute “After Midnight” gathers Hellman, Holender, Hoffman, Voight and others to comment on their experiences making the film; and two 10-minute featurettes, “Controversy and Acclaim” and “Celebrating Schlesinger,” feature interviews with other filmmakers and actors. Each segment offers interesting details, but in his interviews, Hellman repeats much of the information he shares in the commentary track. It is regrettable that neither MGM’s excellent documentary from the 1994 laserdisc, which featured extensive interviews with the late Schlesinger, nor the director’s commentary track from the Criterion laserdisc was included in this package.

Nevertheless, the now-classic story of Joe and Ratso has been given a solid treatment in this DVD, which is bound to help the film find a new audience. As actress Sylvia Miles notes in one of the interviews, “Young people today, new audiences, react just as the original audiences did.” Time hasn’t diminished Midnight Cowboy’s dramatic impact, and the film continues to shine light on characters audiences generally wouldn’t clamor to see on the screen.

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