Alan Parker's Midnight Express is a tough, troubling, difficult picture. It's thoroughly unpleasant to watch, loaded as it is with brutal assaults and grisly torture and people losing their minds; it also includes some cringe-inducing xenophobic attitudes and dialogue (which screenwriter Oliver Stone later apologized for). It's structurally wobbly, and full of odd interludes. But you can't deny director Parker's ability to work over an audience; his direction is tight and sometimes unbearably tense, and he manages to draw us in to a story with a serious shortage of sympathetic characters, primarily through the sheer brute force of his imagery.
The film is based on the true story (reportedly much exaggerated, however) of Billy Hays (Brad Davis). An American on vacation in Istanbul with his girlfriend in 1970, Hays tries to smuggle a couple of kilos of hash back to the States, only to get busted and sent, indefinitely, into a Turkish prison (the movie single-handedly made "Turkish prison" synonymous with "living hell"). With the help of his father (Mike Kellin, in a fine performance of deeply felt frustration) and an expensive lawyer, he gets a three-year sentence for possession, but fifty-three days from the conclusion of that term, a higher court overturns the sentence and instead finds him guilty of smuggling--a thirty-year bit. This is around the time he starts looking to escape, and by the time that fails, he has gone a little bit crazy.
The strength of Stone's screenplay and Parker's direction is in its portrayal of Hayes' slow, steady descent into real madness; it's that old saw about how, if you treat a man like an animal, he'll turn into one. When Hayes makes the switch, Parker is ready with a full arsenal of stylistic tricks: slow-motion photography, scary music, abstract sound, and plenty of blood and gore. But it's a slippery slope to get him there; the primary difficulty with telling this particular story is that you're asking an audience to sympathize and identify with a protagonist who is, semantics and connotations aside, a drug smuggler. And at the time he commits that crime, that is literally all we know about him--Parker and Stone parachute into the action at the last possible moment, beginning the film with Hayes strapping the hash to his body and heading to the airport. There's no denying how unnerving the customs sequence is to watch; it's scored with heartbeat percussion and builds up some genuine tension (in spite of the fact that we know he's not going to get away with it--if he did, there'd be no movie). But that speaks to the skill of Parker's filmmaking; since we know nothing about this guy, we've got no good reason to want him to get away with it. In the scenes that follow, Stone's best notion for getting us on the protagonist's side seems to be making Hayes into a dumb, na´ve kid, and letting us see how he is ruined by this corrupt, foreign, evil system (never mind that the good ol' U.S. of A is not exactly renowned for the common sense proportionality of our drug sentencing).
Some of Parker's directorial choices are a little befuddling. The choice to eschew subtitles in the early passages is an understandable one; Hayes didn't know what was going on, and in putting us in his shoes, we shouldn't either. But by the second half of the picture, he not only understands Turkish, but is speaking it himself--why not let us in on those conversations? (It's a frustrating situation that had this viewer reaching for the remote, in case I was supposed to have the subtitles on.) The film's reliance on Hayes' letters home is a pretty contrived piece of storytelling shorthand, and it also highlights the film's strange trouble with time; it's hard to know, through the first hour, exactly when everything is happening in relation to everything else, and when he writes, in one letter, "Two and a half years have now gone by," all we can think is, "They have?"
Not long after that, Hayes finds himself in court, having his sentence upped. This is one of the more troublesome scenes in the picture; his big courtroom speech, which includes some of the most obviously anti-Turkish sentiments of the film, is full of the less-than-subtle dialogue and reckless hyperbole that have been a thorn in the side of Stone's critics in the years to come. And I'm not sure if even the Oscar-winning screenwriter can explain the film's sudden, peculiar dipping of its toe into the waters of homoerotica (or its goofy retreat from that subject matter).
For all of its problems, however, Midnight Express is unquestionably effective. Parker seems to see it, first and foremost, as an antsy, jittery mood piece--he doesn't let a lot of sunshine in to his frames, and his handling of the story's violence is demanding and relentless. The direction is particularly compact during a nervy escape attempt; he shoots and cuts the sequence with razor sharpness, made stronger by the choice to go without music. The score itself, by Giorgio Moroder, is a mixed bag; renowned at the time for its innovative use of synthesizers (it was the first all-synth score to win an Oscar), the dread-filled music works beautifully in the first act, but is alternately bombastic, syrupy, and button-pushy through the rest of the film. We've seen before how nothing can date a film quicker than an inappropriate score, and that's often the case here (particularly in that unfortunate shower scene).
The performances are interesting, if not altogether successful. A young, thin Randy Quaid is a little over the top, but Paul Smith (later to play Bluto in Altman's Popeye) is a terrifying presence, and John Hurt turns in a quiet, skillful performance (he nabbed a deserved Supporting Actor nomination). Davis' performance mostly works--he does the turn from in-too-deep bonehead to slobbering, masturbating mess believably and smoothly. His only real fumble comes in the scene where he finds out about the change in his sentence and loses his cool; Davis, at least in this film, is better in reactive mode, and he can't quite land this scene where he blusters and yells and must command the screen. But for the most part, he is a fine anchor for this graphic, vivid, forceful film.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The disc comes packaged in Digibook packaging--a handsome, hardbound book-style case (similar to the packaging of Warner's JFK and Bonnie and Clyde Blu-rays). The disc rests in a clear plastic case on the back cover, while the 32-page booklet consists of an essay by Parker, illustrated with photographs, production sketches, and screenplay pages.
Midnight Express makes its high-definition debut with a very solid 1080p MPEG-4 presentation. It looks quite good, especially for a film that's thirty-plus years old; skin tones are natural, fine grain is present but not distracting, and the clean 1.85:1 image shows no scratches, dirt, or other age artifacts. Parker and cinematographer Michael Seresin work mostly in an earth color palate, heavy on the browns, and some of the wide shots (particularly in the opening sequence) are almost sepia-toned. But within its limited saturation, the colors are rich and full--and the same goes for the black levels, a considerable feat in a film this dark (a closing shot, in which Hayes emerges from a dense swath of darkness, is particularly notable, as is a wonderful silhouette shot of Hurt smoking and calling out for his cat). The attention to detail is also marvelous, particularly the grime and muck of the prison walls. With no compression artifacts, edge enhancement, or DNR present, this is about as good a presentation as we could hope for.
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix isn't quite as impressive, primarily because the picture's claustrophobic sound design doesn't present many opportunities to spread the audio throughout the soundstage. Most of the noteworthy environmental sound work comes early in the film, during an Istanbul street scene and subsequent chase. The rest of the audio is mostly geared towards the front channels, with the exception of some distributed music cues. Dialogue is mostly audible and clear, though the entire track is mixed a bit too low (I had to crank my system up much higher than usual).
The disc also includes the original mono English mix, as well as a Spanish 2.0 track and French and Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes. English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
The 50GB Blu-ray disc includes, thankfully, all of the supplements included on the "30th Anniversary Edition" DVD last year. First up is an Audio Commentary with director Parker, who is well-spoken, intelligent, and riveting to listen to. His commentary is fascinating and smart, heavy on the technical info and thematic analysis with little to no narration or pauses. It's a first-rate track.
Next are a trio of featurettes that look at the film's production through the eyes of its various participants (with the help of vintage still photos). The first, "The Producers" (25:54) intermingles interviews with producers Peter Guber, David Putnam, and Alan Marshall as they discuss the genesis of the project, casting, managing the studio heads during the shooting and preview process, and taking the picture to Cannes. "The Production" (24:28) interviews Parker (who, it should be noted, repeats much of the same information as in the Digibook essay and his audio commentary), Putnam, the real Billy Hayes, Peters, Marshall, John Hurt, and Stone (who always has something interesting to add to supplemental materials). They discuss the creation and development of the screenplay, the casting, finding locations, working with the crew, and the challenges of the shoot. "The Finished Film" (23:48) finds Parker and Hurt remembering the late Brad Davis, which leads into Hurt discussing Parker's style of working with actors. Parker discusses the visual style and editing of the picture, and all parties then touch on some specific moments and ideas that apparently didn't fit smoothly into the other segments. These featurettes are all interesting, and the participants have plenty of insights to add. The only trouble is that so much of the material (and even a couple of the soundbites) are repeated between sections (particularly the first and second); I don't know how many times we really need to hear about why Richard Gere wasn't cast in the lead.
Next up is "The Making of Midnight Express" (7:27), a grainy, wonderful vintage full-frame behind-the-scenes piece (its on-screen title is "I'm Healthy, I'm Alive, and I'm Free"). The heavy-handed voice-over introduces us to the real Billy Hayes as he strolls the streets of New York, before showing us clips from the film and on-set interviews with Hayes and Guber, plus a New York interview with Hayes' father. A Photo Gallery (12:40) montage (scored to Moroder's music and an odd pop-blues song) and Trailers for several Sony Blu-ray titles (though, unfortunately, the trailer for this film isn't one of them) round out the bonus features.
Looking back over this review, it reads more negatively than it should; it's easy to pinpoint what's wrong with Midnight Express, and harder to express how, in spite of those flaws, it's still an impressive and important film. It is, for all intents and purposes, a sensationalized melodrama, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work, at least on that level--it gets a rise out of us, it shakes us up and beats us down. Pauline Kael deemed it "movie yellow journalism" and called it "a crude rabble-rouser"; she's right, of course, but what of it? Parker and Stone have applied their considerable skill and technique to tell a story that is harsh and potent, and their film gets, presumably, the reaction they were going for. Whether their accomplishment is an admirable one is up to each viewer to decide.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.