Tag Archives: Sylvia Miles

Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

Midnight Cowboy gets to be a character study, but doesn’t start as one, which is an interesting situation. About forty-five minutes into the film, which runs just shy of two hours, Midnight Cowboy chucks the narrative urgency. Maybe not chucks, maybe just shuts down, because it does take the film a while to lose that pressure. Until eventually leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are sitting around starving to death and the film’s not treating it as problem to be solved; it’s a feature of the characters’ lives. Midnight Cowboy is never a wish fulfillment picture–even when it’s not absent hope, it’s not hopeful–but it goes from being a bad dream to a nightmare without reflecting on the change. And the nightmare runs a lot differently.

The nightmare also starts when Dustin Hoffman becomes the costar who’s taking top billing. When the film initially introduces Hoffman, it doesn’t hint at where the narrative’s going; it also doesn’t forecast what to expect from the actors. Voight and Hoffman have got a lot of character development with almost no expository assistance. Midnight Cowboy is a film with two exceptional performances, both independently ambitious and both agreeably codependent. Director Schlesinger keeps it together–Hoffman and Voight squat in a hovel, their domestic normality utterly shocking and utterly not because the actors and Schlesinger have done such a good job conveying the physicality’s of their performances. It’s like a stage play, those scenes in the apartment, perfectly choreographed, even more perfectly edited by Hugh A. Robertson. It’s an acting ballet, with these two actors playing their previously established caricatures with immediate depth.

The bad dream part of the film, which has Voight arriving in New York City to hustle his cowboy-attired bod out to the wealthy ladies of the Big Apple. Voight has a troubled past, which Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt introduce through flashbacks, usually as dream sequences. Both sleeping and napping dream sequences. Basically, Voight’s always flashing back to something to explain why he’s reacting the way he’s reacting. There’s some narrative efficiency to it, I suppose, but they’re not incorporated well. Voight actually does the best with them, intentionally or not.

It all changes, soon after the nightmare begins, when Hoffman gets his own daydream. It’s a gently done sequence, both actors silent to the audience; excellent editing from Robertson on it. Midnight Cowboy never glamorizes–until this daydream sequence–and it’s mind-blowingly effective in establishing the new angle on the characters. Oddly, Hoffman entirely downplays having the daydream–which is the opposite of Voight–and hits some of the same effectiveness notes for that inverse approach.

In the second half of the film, once Hoffman shares the narrative focus, Midnight Cowboy works more as truncated vignettes. The main plot line is still Voight trying to make it as a hustler, but it’s narratively reduced. Instead, it’s Voight and Hoffman’s bonding over this idea, usually unspoken in every way. It’s a lot of amazing acting from both of them. Hoffman’s loud, Voight’s quiet.

There are some excellent supporting performances–Brenda Vaccaro in particular, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles.

Fine photography from Adam Holender. Midnight Cowboy’s about the editing and Holender keeps up with where Schlesinger needs the camera to be for the cut. Schlesinger just seems impatient until Hoffman gets into the picture full-time. He rushes the first part of the film, then drags it down with the acceptable and pragmatic but way too obvious flashback sequences.

And it all kind of falls apart when Vaccaro’s vignette is over. It’s like the film’s running late, so Schlesinger is rushing again only now he’s got two actors instead of one to hurry along. But the film’s still quite good and the lead performances are phenomenal.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Hugh A. Robertson; music by John Barry; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by United Artists.

Starring Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley) and Barnard Hughes (Towny).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE YOU GOTTA HAVE FRIENDS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI


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The Funhouse (1981, Tobe Hooper)

The Funhouse is terrifying. Director Hooper opens the film with a dual homage to Halloween and Psycho and then proceeds to do something entirely different in the end of this film. Like those two films, he takes a while to get to the violent acts. He does, however, announce he’s going to terrify the audience from the get go. And he does. The first forty-five minutes of the film is Hooper getting ready to terrify the audience. And then he does. The finale, which probably only runs fifteen minutes, is exhausting.

What’s so amazing about the first thirty or forty minutes is how the film doesn’t have to go anywhere else. It’s just a bunch of teenagers hanging out at a carnival, with Elizabeth Berridge’s protagonist on her first date with an older boy (Cooper Huckabee). She’s had a fight with her younger brother and he heads out to the carnival after she tells him she won’t be taking him. It could be a short movie about small town life.

Until almost halfway through, the carnival just seems dangerous. It’s never explicitly dangerous. Hooper and writer Lawrence Block spend more time on making Berridge give in to Huckabee’s affections than anything else. Well, anything else obvious. Hooper’s very subtly preparing the audience for the horror show.

Excellent performances help. Berridge is a great lead, Largo Woodruff is great as her friend. Kevin Conway is fantastic; his sincerity sells the danger.

The Funhouse is an awesome, frightening, exhilarating motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tobe Hooper; written by Lawrence Block; director of photography, Andrew Laszlo; edited by Jack Hofstra; music by John Beal; production designer, Mort Rabinowitz; produced by Derek Power and Steven Bernhardt; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Elizabeth Berridge (Amy Harper), Cooper Huckabee (Buzz Dawson), Miles Chapin (Richie), Largo Woodruff (Liz), Sylvia Miles (Madame Zena), William Finley (Marco the Magnificent), Wayne Doba (Frankenstein’s Monster), Shawn Carson (Joey Harper) and Kevin Conway (The Barker).


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Denise Calls Up (1995, Hal Salwen)

About ten years ago, the best independent movies–as Fox Searchlight wasn’t around yet–were coming out of Sony Pictures Classics. Denise Calls Up has disappeared. It’s not out on DVD and the VHS is out of print. Hal Salwen is similarly gone–his last film is available, pan and scanned, on DVD, but the one he made after Denise has never been released. The New York independent filmmakers of the 1990s–the only good independent industry of the 1990s–have mostly disappeared….

Denise is an odd film. It’s structured around phone calls. The film is, watched today, a monument to the call waiting-era, which is now mostly replaced by e-mail. Except a film about a bunch of people e-mailing each other doesn’t allow dialogue, which means there wouldn’t be much for the actors to do. Denise gives its actors a lot to do. I think this film is the first one I ever saw Liev Schreiber in. Schreiber–to some degree–caught on and managed to resist Hollywood crap for a while, always doing smaller work. But this film is also the first place I saw Alanna Ubach, who was around for a minute (particularly Clockwatchers), then disappeared. These two are the only ones I’m going to mention, but everyone in the film is great. I can’t figure out how Salwen got such good performances out of them, given the telephone-only talking nature of the film.

While the telephone-specific elements of the film may or may not be outdated, Denise‘s theme of isolation in American culture is more than valid, probably moreso today. Salwen’s an exceptional filmmaker too–Denise is particularly well-edited and the location manager is my hero–it’s unthinkable that he hasn’t gone on to anything more. I hope Sony gets around to releasing it on DVD, just so more people can see it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Hal Salwen; director of photography, Michael Mayers; edited by Gary Sharfin; music by Lynn Geller; production designer, Susan Bolles; produced by J. Todd Harris; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Alanna Ubach (Denise), Tim Daly (Frank), Caroleen Feeney (Barbara), Dan Gunther (Martin), Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (Gale), Liev Schreiber (Jerry), Aida Turturro (Linda) and Sylvia Miles (Gale’s Aunt Sharon).