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Midnight Express
Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Oliver Stone (based on the book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffner)
Stars: Brad Davis (Billy Hayes), Randy Quaid (Jimmy Booth), John Hurt (Max), Paul Smith (Hamidou), Irene Miracle (Susan), Bo Hopkins (Tex), Norbert Weisser (Erich), Mike Kellin (Mr. Hayes), Michael Ensign (Stanley Daniels), Gigi Ballista (Chief Judge), Kevork Malikyan (Prosecutor)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1978
Country: U.S.
Midnight Express Blu-Ray
Midnight Express Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is a brutal and brutalizing film whose effects have diminished little in the decades since its controversial theatrical release in the late 1970s. It was both highly acclaimed, evidenced by a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and six Oscars nominations, with statues going to Oliver Stone’s screenplay and Giorgio Moroder’s pioneering synth score, and vilified, with intense criticism for its negative and politically charged portrayal of Turkey as a backward medieval nation of “pigs.” Even today it remains a divisive and powerful work of cinema whose considerable artistry is matched only by its relentlessness. Although there is an undeniable political subtext that easily supports the weight of various accusations of racism and xenophobia, the film is first and foremost about using all the sensory powers of the movies to convey what an American student named Billy Hayes endured after being arrested while trying to leave Istanbul with four pounds of hashish taped to his stomach. (Although based on actual events as conveyed in Hayes’ memoir of the same title, much of what happens in the film has been fabricated to focus and heighten the impact of the systemic violence that is at the film’s core.)

The film opens with a brilliant sequence of sustained tension in which Billy, portrayed with great physical conviction by then-unknown television actor Brad Davis, straps the drugs around his midsection and then tries to make his way through the airport. Parker overwhelms the soundtrack with the thudding sound of Billy’s racing heart and fills the screen with sweaty close-ups that convey in no uncertain terms that Billy is in way over his head. The outcome is predetermined--Billy will be caught, arrested, and interned in a Turkish prison, otherwise there would be no film--but this in no way dilutes the raw-nerve-rattling intensity of the sequence, and when the worst is finally realized, it has that much more of a horrific impact.

The rest of the film takes place in a Turkish prison where Billy is sentenced to three years for his crime, which is later extended to a life sentence because the prosecutor (Kevork Malikyan) pushes the Turkish High Court in Ankara to overturn the earlier charge of possession in favor of smuggling. The prison in which Billy may spend the rest of his life is nightmare incarnate--an aging fortress of no color and no respite populated with prisoners of all nationalities and ages (from the elderly down to young children). It has dank hallways, iron-wrought torture rooms, and a dusty inner yard bleached by the hot sun. Inside Billy meets and befriends several other inmates, including a fiery American named Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid) and an eccentric Brit named Max (John Hurt). All of them are overseen by a hulking, nearly mute guard (Paul Smith) who relishes his sadistic power role; when he shoots a hard look at Billy’s father as his son is being dragged from the courtroom, it has a bone-chilling sense of finality to it.

If there is a narrative momentum in Midnight Express, it is a downward spiral, with Billy’s life in the hellish prison constantly devolving amidst brutality and a judicial system that seems intent on making an example of him by never letting him go, regardless of the efforts of his family and the government (all of which is left off-screen, as are any indications that Billy’s punishment might have been a result of the U.S. government’s pressure on countries like Turkey to stem the drug trade). It is in this regard that the film has been criticized for its unfair portrayal of Turkey, its justice system, and its people. Part of this is because everything is depicted through the eyes of Billy, who is young, privileged, and American (his name, although real, is just too perfect); thus, it should come as no surprise that the dark underside of a foreign culture would seem that much more alien and dispiriting. Parker emphasizes Billy’s alienation by allowing no subtitles when Turkish characters speak, which renders their dialogue little more than frightful jabbering (half the time they aren’t even speaking Turkish but rather Maltese because the film was shot in Malta and many of the actors were recruited there). It’s a risky choice and one that arguably does cast Turkey in an unnecessarily harsh light, yet it is decidedly effective in aligning us with Billy’s experience, which is the primary goal of the film.

The atmosphere of cruelty and degradation is lifted from time to time in the interactions between Billy and the other inmates; in particular, the trio he forms with Jimmy and Max creates an intriguing triangle of clashing personalities, with Jimmy constantly jittery and hot-tempered, Max resigned to his fate to the point of lethargy, and Billy just trying to make sense of what his life has become. Unfortunately, Parker’s attempt to offer temporary respite from the violence also leads to the film’s worst sequence, which depicts a romantic interlude between Billy and an imprisoned Swede named Erich (Norbert Weisser) that Billy chastely declines at the last moment. The idea that even heterosexual men might turn to each other for physical connection and intimacy inside the prison is certainly understandable (although it made the studio executives exceedingly nervous), but Parker shoots it with such dreamy soft-core schmaltz and Moroder’s rising music is so over the top that the sequence turns into an immediate parody of itself, especially when placed in counterpart to the rest of the film’s unrelieved viciousness.

At other points, though, Parker drives home the essence of experience with an unmatched intensity, particularly the sequence in which Billy finally loses his temper and lashes out against the prison snitch who enriches himself at the expense of Billy’s friends. Parker goes into aesthetic overdrive, depicting Billy’s unleashed violence as a slow-motion orgasmic release of pent-up anger and frustration, which works much better than the earlier courtroom sequence in which Billy is given the life sentence and he angrily lectures the prosecutor and the judges. His points have merit and Brad Davis’ delivery is powerful, but the words don’t sound like anything he would say. Instead, it makes Billy sound like a mouthpiece for screenwriter Oliver Stone’s indignation toward unjust systems, a recurring theme that would come to define his later films. Thus, Midnight Express falters most when it is trying too hard to make a point rather than engaging our primal cores in depicting the exhaustive and harrowing extremes of human endurance.

Midnight Express Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Portuguese, Spanish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by director Alan Parker
  • “The Making of Midnight Express featurette
  • “The Producers” featurette
  • “The Production” featurette
  • “The Finished Film” featurette
  • Photo gallery
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    SRP$38.96
    Release DateJuly 21, 2009

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    At least when compared to the old 1998 DVD, the new high-definition transfer of Midnight Express on this Blu-Ray disc is a revelation. Although it retains a slight softness that is typical of ’70s cinema, the image is sharp and extremely well detailed, which brings out more than ever the squalid living conditions in the prison. Where the transfer really excels, though, is in the contrast and black levels, which lend an intense crispness to the film’s regular juxtapositions of light and dark and also bring out new detail in the murky depths inside the prison (this is an exceedingly dark film). The lossless Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD surround soundtrack is also excellent, particularly in rendering Giorgio Moroder’s pioneering synthesizer score. The opening sequence with its heavy heartbeat has great depth and intensity, and the surround channels are well used to emphasize various atmospheric sounds to draw us into the world of the prison.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    All of the supplements on this Blu-Ray disc previously appeared on the 2008 30th Anniversary Edition DVD. We have a good audio commentary by director Alan Parker, who is measured and informative in discussing his experiences making the film. After that we have three separate featurettes that together comprise a thorough 75-minute retrospective look at the film and its legacy. In “The Producers” (26 min.), producers Peter Guber, David Puttnam, and Alan Marshall discuss the film’s genesis, casting, how they arrived at the current ending (which differs from both the book and Stone’s screenplay), and the film’s reception at Cannes. “The Production” (25 min.) features all of the same participants, plus director Alan Parker, screenwriter Oliver Stone, actor John Hurt, and the real Billy Hayes talking about the writing of the script, casting the film, and the use of locations in Malta. Finally, in “The Finished Film” (23 min.) Parker, Hurt, and Stone talk about the film’s postproduction, especially the editing and creation of the soundtrack. Also included on the disc is “The Making of Midnight Express,” a 7-minute featurette from 1978 that was originally titled “I’m Healthy, I’m Alive, and I’m Free.” It focuses primarily on the real-life Billy Hayes, but also includes brief interviews with Guber and Hayes’s father. Finally, the disc includes a 13-minute photo slideshow scored to Giorgio Moroder’s theme music, and the disc’s book-binding case has a lengthy essay by Parker about the film’s production.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


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