Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 March


Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882

On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.




Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)

Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help. That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see. There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.



Why Watch?


  • Won three Oscars, none for the actors
  • One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
  • Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
  • A John Barry score


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon





The General

Brendan Gleeson plays Martin Cahill in The General


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



12 February



Art thieves steal Munch’s The Scream, 1994

On this day in 1994, thieves broke into the National Gallery, Oslo, and stole the Edvard Munch painting The Scream. It is actually one of a number of so-named works of art, there being four different Screams in a variety of media, plus a number of lithographic prints struck by Munch himself. The one stolen on the night in question was in tempera on cardboard and was in a less secure part of the gallery – it had been moved as part of celebrations held to mark the opening of the winter Olympics in Lillehammer, which had been taking place on the second floor. The thieves left a note: “thanks for the poor security” and later followed up with a ransom demand of $1 million. The painting was recovered in May after a joint operation by Norwegian Police, the British police’s SO10 unit and the Getty Museum.




The General (1998, dir: John Boorman)

Cinema loves a gentleman rogue, and in the shape of charmer Martin Cahill that’s exactly what we have here. Add to that basic formula the fact that the career criminal is a loquacious Irishman, played here by Brendan Gleeson, and the combination is doubly potent. Shooting in black and white for reasons of cost but also because there’s enough colour in the character to fill the frame, director and writer John Boorman tells the story of the professional thief who operated in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, tantalising the police, irritating the IRA, beguiling with one hand while he pilfered with the other. Boorman had himself been burgled by Cahill, and includes the heist here (it’s the one where Cahill steals a gold record off a wall – the one Boorman had won for the soundtrack of Deliverance). And it can’t escape notice that Boorman, like so many, seems enthralled by a man who could be brutal, but was so intelligent, devious and had such a sense of personal integrity that he stirred up protective feelings even in those he’d harmed. Enter Jon Voight, as copper Ned Kenny, the sheriff of Nottingham to Cahill’s Robin Hood, a hard-bitten professional cop who’s seen it all, but not the way Cahill does it (one alibi includes Cahill actually being in the company of the cop when he was meant to have been pulling a bank job). Enter also the two sisters (Maria Doyle and Angeline Ball) Cahill shares his house with, married to one, sleeping with the other. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to pull that off, as does the theft of an Old Master which Boorman shows us in full detail. Cahill eventually ran foul of the IRA, who couldn’t abide that he operated outside their jurisdiction, and it is that ugly denouement that brings Boorman’s film to an end. The General won Boorman a best director award at Cannes, but this vastly entertaining film remains oddly overlooked, doubtless because some people are resistant to films in black and white. If that sounds like you and you must have colour, check out Ordinary Decent Criminal, a film from 2000 about Cahill’s escapades which stars Kevin Spacey as another, slightly more fictionalised, version of the man himself. Just don’t expect it to be as funny or as fleet of foot.



Why Watch?


  • Boorman won best director at Cannes
  • Boorman’s immersive screenplay makes you work out things for yourself
  • A mighty Brendan Gleeson performance
  • DP Seamus Deasy’s rich monochrome cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The General – at Amazon