On the one hand, Midnight Cowboy is exactly the kind of film that I wish they would try more often, and that they'd meet with this kind of success whenever they tried it. Here we have a film with unabashedly experimental editing, polished and tidied a bit for mainstream consumption of course; we also have a film that does some things with location shooting and filthy-looking high-grain cinematography that are downright visionary by the standards of 1969. The narrative content is just as raw and rough, presenting ugly situations and downtrodden, aggressively unglamorous characters. For its edginess, the film was rewarded with the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (John Schlesinger the incendiary British realist making his first American film), and Best Adapted Screenplay (adapted by Waldo Salt from James Leo Herlihy's novel), and became one of the highest-grossing movies of the year - it made over $20 million in 1969 dollars. I really don't know if it could have made $20 million in 2020 dollars, if it was released today.* It's heartening to see something genuinely try to push the envelope, and receive acclaim for it.

On the other hand, I am not all convinced that Midnight Cowboy does these things well. It's a film with more ideas than talent for executing those ideas, or a good filter for which ideas would mesh best with all of the others. The movie constantly reinvents itself, and eventually, by the time it reaches its finale, it has reinvented itself one time too many. I would undoubtedly feel much more kindly towards the film if it backed off on just one single point: the big faux-Warhol happening that comes around three-quarters of the way through the movie (a scene Roger Ebert hated so intensely that he singled it out for attack in both 1969 and 1994). It introduces an entirely new social stratum as well as an entirely new visual gimmick of mimicking an SLR camera viewfinder by putting a small version of the frame in the center of a larger version of the same frame, with the small version in focus and the large version extremely blurry. It's also cut in the choppy, poppy "single wry line of dialogue BOOM single wry line of dialogue BOOM single wry line-" style of assembling hipster parties that already a bit cheesy and self-conscious when director Blake Edwards and editor Howard Smith used it on the other side of the decade in Breakfast at Tiffany's. It kills the story's momentum at a point it badly needs to start accelerating into its final scenes, while serving no explicable function beyond satisfying the movie's obvious desire to be About New York Today.

That impulse goes far beyond this scene; every single aspect of Midnight Cowboy positions itself as an attempt to grapple with the remarkable changes to U.S. society that had taken place over just a handful of years since the mid '60s. Hence the bleeding-edge technique and content, which mostly hinges on portrayals of sex that would have been unimaginable just months earlier, and which were still enough to get the film hung with one of the first X-ratings, mostly on the grounds that having direct (though not explicit) portrayals of homosexual acts was beyond even the limits of the newly-minted R-rating (1969 was the first full year of the MPAA ratings system, recall). It came out during the first wave of American films using European-style filmmaking techniques to address European-style stories of immiserated people in a combination of realistIc mise en scène and psychologically expressive editing; it cares deeply about capturing exactly what New York is like in this moment of resettling after years of upheaval. It is, as a result, a striking time capsule, and this includes its most broken and misjudged moments as well as its strongest.

To paint this portrait of New York, c. 1969, the film lands on an outsider, Joe Buck (Jon Voight, in his third movie, and the one that catapulted him from anonymous nobody to an exciting new star, for at least a few years), a Texan who has decided to make his fortune as a gigolo. Upon arriving, his lack of familiarity with this or any other big city, as well as the obvious naïveté he telegraphs by insistently wearing a very dumb-looking fringed jacket and just-for-show cowboy boots (I am only partially sure that we in the audience are meant to think that he looks like an idiot dandy; at any rate, the film doesn't pretend that he looks any less out-of-place in the few early scenes in Texas than he does in New York), means that he very quickly manages to run out of the few resources he came with, and he's not even good at hustling. Enter Rico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Huffman, in his fourth movie, and the first that pays off his newfound superstardom in the wake of The Graduate), a wiry little con artist with a bum leg. Ratso enters Joe's life trying to steal from him, and soon has a reluctant, sharp-tongued change of heart; eventually, the two men are living in the same shitty little hole off of the $20 paydays Joe is able to get from sleeping the women Ratso procures.

The movie lives and dies on the relationship between these two characters, and  Voight and Hoffman's remarkable performances, both waltzing right up to cheap cliché (drawling hick and hotheaded little Italian) and finding the humanity beneath the script's somewhat reductive treatment of their personalities. The two actors - both Oscar-nominated, and it's generally assumed that they lost mostly by splitting the vote between them - sketch out a really lovely portrait of two wary men at the end of their rope finding something comforting and stable in another human presence, leaving open room for the film's omnipresent innuendos about Joe's sexuality to hang over their relationship without committing to a single reading. Regardless, the portrait of an intense mutual dependency, two figures drowning in adversity keeping each other afloat, keeps emerging in large and small gestures, centering on Voight's protective poses towards Hoffman.

The film's central relationship works well enough to keep the film working even when it's trying to ruin it by burying it under a whole lot of fussy and aimless style. I have limited affection for Schlesinger's films, but he's clearly a strong filmmaker with a good ability to cut through to the heart of his character stories. This makes it a bit confusing why Midnight Cowboy is so particularly an overdirected movie, particularly in its overburdened treatment of the flashbacks to Joe's childhood and young adulthood, which Schlesinger and cinematographer Adam Holender render in expressionistic black and white, cut together by editor Hugh A. Robertson as a series of dream fragments that fit together conceptually but not spatially. It's certainly adventurous filmmaking, so I don't want to deny that about it, but it is a misadventure. Part of the problem is that these flashbacks serve such a profoundly dubious narrative purpose, rendering Joe's ambitions towards prostitution, as well as his ambiguous gayness, as the result of some bargain bin Freudianism. They're scenes that already cheapen the character, and the sheer excess of style ends up feeling like an effort both to distract us from their content and to exaggerate their importance.

Far better is when Schlesinger and his team of filmmakers simply set up shop on the streets of New York and just film them with lovely grunginess and piece them together as subjective poetry. The film perhaps over-relies on the newly-invented technique of musical montages to put this across, several of them anchored by the lilting Harry Nilsson cover of the urban malaise ballad "Everybody's Talkin'", which became a massive hit on the back of the movie. And given the tremendous amount of work it's doing to give Midnight Cowboy emotional resonance, that's fair. But there's plenty of other good to be found in the way the film guides us through the streets, cannily using shallow focus to isolate Joe even in crowd shots (including one of the film's signature images, his cowboy-hatted head floating on a sea of anonymous humans), let alone within the rotting spaces he mostly finds himself throughout the story. The film is a weak melodrama and a compromised but generally very good about male relationships; as a story of being all alone in the midst of thousands equally isolated people in the big, bustling, impersonal city, it's tremendous. New York had never looked like this before, grainy and hazy, ultra-real and dreamy, and despite similar efforts in the decade to come, it never quite looked like this again; and what it looks like is a remarkable vision of the individual losing and and finding himself in the midst of exciting, terrifying, earthy humanity. The film doesn't always know how to capitalise on that, and it's never its first priority, but it's in these moments that the masterpiece hiding inside this clumsily shaped material shines through.

*I mean, obviously not if it was released today. But not in a version of today where the movie theaters hadn't been closed on account of the plague, either.