Midnight Express Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Midnight Express Review

    Covered recently in Keith Hurst's excellent review for the US release, we can now take a look at Sony's region-free UK edition of Alan Parker's notorious, but accolade-showered prison drama, Midnight Express, the film adaptation of William Hayes' bestselling account of his time spent in the Turkish penal system after getting caught trying to smuggle hash out of the country, and his subsequent escape after years of grim incarceration.

    With the reverberant intensity and metronomic pulse of Georgio Moroder's Oscar-winning electronic score about the only thing that dates it, Parker's film stands up just as powerfully today as it did when he, alongside producers David Puttnam and Peter Guber, sat nervously during test screenings of this appreciably difficult story. That the film would gain another Academy Award (for fledgling filmmaker Oliver Stone's screenplay) and be nominated for a further four, including Best Picture, was proof that their gamble on such dangerous material paid off. And it is great to see that such a cosmopolitan production - English makers, Mediterranean location, US money, script and leading man - could create so absolute, so driven and so brave a movie at a time when British directors were on their uppers (this was just before Colin Welland's patriotic war-cry of Chariots Of Fire left the starting blocks) and the American independent ethic was still something that could so easily fall through the net and be forgotten about. Yet despite intense studio demands - Columbia's jitters were swept under the carpet due to the fact that the suits were in LA, whilst Parker and his close-knit film-crew were in sunny Malta, which was standing in for Turkey, a nation that, quite understandably, wasn't too keen on the film ever seeing the light of day - Midnight Express would become as strongly cherished a film of courage and emotional triumph, as it was a savage indictment of legalised injustice.

    As the young and deeply unlucky Billy Hayes, Brad Davis is staggeringly good, delivering a performance that is realistically brooding and philosophical and, when the time comes, terrifyingly intense and hauntingly sub-human. Magnificently dramatic and tragically invested in his character, Davis, by necessity is the heart and soul of the story. But the fact that he was virtually unknown outside of a handful of TV appearances that he had made, episodes of Roots, for example, only made his unfamiliarity all the more compelling. Hayes is just a free-wheeling traveller, passing through customs with a little secret stuffed up his shirt. Once the judicial system has him though, all bets are off. A better known face might have distracted us from the overwhelming odds stacked against Billy. Richard Gere, for instance, although still fairly fresh at this stage was the studio's immediate and determined choice, but the film would not have had anywhere near the same sense of personal jeopardy had he been on the receiving end. Beaten and intimidated, Davis still possesses a stubborn resilience that, once he has hooked up with the mesmerising John Hurt's sanity-retreated hippy, Max, becomes a protective bond that adds another convincing layer to his steadily darkening mindset. As the mental walls close in on Hayes, Davis digs deep and finds a hardcore spirit beneath his brittle exterior. His drug-dealing (purely social, he claims) becomes totally irrelevant as he shouts in righteous rage to those who order him to be caged that the punishment should fit the crime. It becomes clear very, very swiftly that no amount of legal-learning behind the bars, a la Carlito Brigante (personified by Al Pacino in the awesome Carlito's Way for Brian De Palma), is going to save him from a system that is as corrupt and as morally bankrupt as a Tennessee lynch-mob. As the years go by and ill-fated escape attempts result in little more than crushed dreams and battered bones, Hayes finds that to survive this hell, he is going to have to nurture his most volatile and base instincts. Fate will not lend him a helping hand and, when his sentence is cruelly extended, you can forgive the aggressively political speech he delivers to an uncaring courtroom - that you just know Stone relished putting into his mouth - for the film, and the story, have entered into a quasi-mythical realm of heightened poignancy.

    Parker's direction is not as flamboyant as that he would employ in Angel Heart, but he keeps the intensity just as raw and the unflinching eye of desperation as keen, deadly and remorseless. Utilising the fabulous medieval-looking British garrison-cum-storehouse on Malta as its horrid prison - I've been to it and can testify that it is just as grim as Parker's film makes it appear - the atmosphere he evokes is one of pure dread. Strangely enough, it is not the crowd scenes out in the open - where knives and revenge-stabbings are commonplace - that are the most chilling and unpredictable, but the shadowy interiors of decrepit bath-houses, cells and the ungoverned, lawless chambers connecting them all. But another surprise is the sheer amount of tension and excitement that Parker creates during the initial arrest at the airport sequence. I mean we know that Billy gets caught - that's the entire point of the story ... he's caught and imprisoned ... and yet we still twitch with jangling nerves as he almost makes it to the plane. Plus, there is his opportunist and hugely foolhardy escape through the streets of Istanbul. Again, we know that he can't possibly get far, but we're still right there alongside him, heart racing, blood pounding and sweat dripping. Parker's films, on the whole, are not what you would call adrenal, but with Midnight Express and Angel Heart, the suspense is so pressure-cooked that seeing the full film through to the end can become something of an endurance test.

    Justifiably notorious for its tongue-biting sequence, Midnight Express serves out a sentence that is not so much unpredictable in its brutality - we, as the prisoners, themselves, become accustomed to the regular beatings, degradations and punishments meted out by Hamidou and his cronies - as it is constantly threatening. Violence hangs like a pall over the film, yet this is not the institutionalised victimisation of Scum or any number of typical “behind bars” scenarios. Naturally, we have the big “heavy” in the hulking frame of Paul Smith's mean old warder-cum-thug, but there is such a dusty tang of desperation in the air that renders virtually every scene open to barbarity. With seemingly no rules having been laid down - even the laws, as Billy points out in his second courtroom appearance, are subject to change from one day to the next - how do you know when you've broken one of them? How can you avoid overstepping the line when you've no idea where that line is drawn? Like the mangy mutts prowling the prison, life degenerates into a game of mean scavenging.

    But, as with any tried-and-trusted system drama, every dog will have its day. Ray Winstone's sock-koshed vengeance in Scum, Stallone's dumb-bell swinging fury in Lock-Up etc are classic examples of the “final straw” worm-turning that even the most model prisoner is often forced to make during his cinematic sentence. But when Brad Davis goes ballistic, it is with such a volcanic eruption of blood-curdling uber-savagery that even though we know damn well that the guy he's unleashing it on had it coming to him, we still recoil from our own hero, so ferocious and uncontrolled is his fixture-ripping and bone-breaking fury. You want to talk about “in-the-moment” character immersion? How about the crew keeping as far from Davis as they could, and only Parker and his camera venturing close enough to capture the gore-spitting, rage-filled release of the embittered Hayes? There is something so primal and real and intensely unrestrained that you can only mourn the loss of Davis to the acting world. For although he would never again attain such a vivid level of unforgettable performance, there was still potential for another Brad Davis “blow-out”. He is totally like a wild animal let loose amongst the flock, and a wonderfully weird touch is that one of the Turks hunkering in the background begins to chant in a warped litany of both fear and awe, adding to the perverse beauty of such disembodied violence.

    Populated by a cast that is made up of Roman, English, Turkish-Cypriot, American and, most colourfully of all, Maltese actors - the majority of the extras just culled from the streets around Valletta, as Ridley Scott would later find just as visually vibrant and emotionally alienating for the bloodthirsty spectators around his Colosseum in Gladiator - the film has that decadent, unusual and lonely atmosphere that Westerners would genuinely experience in foreign captivity. To have used American or British extras would have been too familiar, too disarming, and Parker was actually way ahead of the game in this respect. Mind you, it helps that Paul Smith, who is actually American, already looks totally Turkish as Billy's main adversary. Smith, who once portrayed Bluto in Robert Altman's big screen adaptation of Popeye, is one of 70's Cinema's most notorious ogres. Slitty-eyed and only prone to a smile when he has just dreamt-up some other form of vicious torture, he stalks the prison like a state-sanctioned Jason Vorhees, a tour de force who exists so far beyond the conventions of humanity that I'm surprised there hasn't been an action figure in a baton-wielding pose made to commemorate him. Then there is the exquisite performance from Mike Kellin, as Billy's father, that rams home the torture of the situation of familial dislocation and helplessness. His pain-wracked outburst towards Hamidou as the door shuts on his son for what could, for all intents and purposes, be the last time he ever sees him, is a totally inspiring, though horribly pathetic moment of useless retaliation. But the most traumatic of the scenes of collateral damage is reserved for Irene Miracle's profoundly disturbing visit to Billy whilst banged-up in the nut-house of Section 13. As his devoted girlfriend, Susan, she is dragged down to his level of absolute, soul-scarred emotional obliteration, compelled to submit to one of the greatest tests of both her dignity and her love for him in a scene that is acutely uncomfortable to watch. Miracle would later go on to star in the one of cinema's most surreal and fantastic set-pieces, when she took a hugely ill-advised dive into an opulent sunken parlour of corpses in Dario Argento's Inferno (1981). The gorgeous actress's notable roles may be few and between, but it would be impossible to deny the long-lasting power of these two particular sequences.

    Ironically, Dennis Quaid just missed out on the part of Billy, but his own sibling, Randy (The Long Riders, Independence Day), managed to bag the role of half-crazed American prisoner, Jimmy Booth. The actually shy and humble actor brings Booth's loopy and violent tendencies convincingly to the screen. Certainly one of the “good guys”, he is still someone that we feel uncomfortable around, although ultimately, our hearts will go out to him and his forlorn desperation. Norbet Weisser as the much softer, more humanistic Swiss inmate, Erich, is also fine. Ostensibly the soul-mate for Billy during his years of incarceration, the film makes a move that was undeniably bold for its time as their relationship almost takes on a more physical side. The tenderness of the sequence in question and, indeed, the montage that precedes it, have, of course, been lampooned many times over the years and, I'll admit, that I can help but suppress a giggle at it, myself, but this is an understandable development in the scheme of things and one that, in view of the harsh environment that surrounds them and the relentlessly grim future that they look forward to, a veritable tonic in the stew of fear, deceit and fury. And, hey, Weisser must like these claustrophobic, sealed-in scenarios, as he would go on to portray one of the doomed Norwegians in Carpenter's classic The Thing, and a galactic fugitive on another isolated research base in Aaron Lipstadt's cult SF yarn Android, both in 1982.

    Perennial cowpoke, no matter how you dress him up for a part, Bo (The Wild Bunch) Hopkins is terrifically slimy and ambiguous as the “supposedly” US Embassy's agent, Tex. Arriving from out of nowhere and retreating into the murk just as quickly, he supplies some bogus early hope for the nabbed Billy. We see the barely suppressed smirk on his tanned face at his fellow American's situation and we instinctively know that this guy is not going to be any help. In fact, there is a palpable air of shady governmental menace to Tex that would certainly have appealed to Oliver Stone. Hopkins almost always has this air about him, his easygoing Southern drawl never quite masking that vein of devious unpredictability. This is another exceptionally designed touch of paranoia in a film that depends on tightening the screws of Billy's escalating nightmare. And Kevork Malikyan, who should be familiar to many as the Arabian assassin battling Harrison Ford on a boat as it gets chopped to pieces by a huge propeller, is suitably vitriolic and horribly unsympathetic as the chief prosecutor intent on getting Billy given a life sentence - or worse, if he could. Malikyan, of course, was also excellent in the late seventies PC-baiting comedy Mind Your Language - a show that is perhaps more famous and fondly remembered (even by me ... and I was only about eight or nine when I saw it) for the delectable Francoise Pascal.

    But there is also the big hitter of John Hurt as the English dope-head, Max, who would certainly steal the show if Brad Davis wasn't so brazen, assured and downright brilliant. Coupled with his main nemesis, of Paolo Bonacelli's venomous snake in the grass, Rifki, who, replete with fake glass eye (a horrible milky pearl that glows malevolently out of his greasy, gurning countenance) and rotting teeth, is the slime-ball prison stooge we just cannot wait to witness getting his comeuppance, Max is the sickened Yin to Rifki's Yang of such principle-shredding prison life. Both epitomise the various extremes that ensure you can reach another dawn in one piece. But Max's sardonic, hashish-enhanced philosophy is only compromised by Billy's friendship. Without the tormented fury of the young American to ensnare him in lofty schemes that would inspire envy, wrath and vengeance, he would clearly go on, smoking quietly and amusedly in his corner and passing on ironic, sage-like wisdom to any who would listen. With an impeccable performance of subdued dignity and a sense of reserved blight - his simple, beaten-down acceptance of the killing of his cat is heartbreaking simply by virtue of Hurt not going overboard - he justly deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Our final sight of him is one that is sure to linger and, like a unresolved problem, fester at the back of our minds.

    The young Oliver Stone - always an angry voice issuing from a cyclone of creativity - delivered his draft for the movie, his first actually commissioned screenplay and it is predominately this that we see on-screen, albeit with some narrative and locational alterations. By this time, Stone had already penned his searing movie-memoirs of his own experiences in Vietnam in Platoon, which wouldn't get filmed until the middle of the next decade, but the seeds of his ongoing themes of anti-authoritarianism, American interference in foreign affairs and grand injustice were clearly sown with Midnight Express. Stone takes these themes and smothers them around individual characters who must endure and suffer them until they have been stripped down to the bone, emotionally and psychologically, and reduced to little more than a primal, instinctive cipher for the hypocrisy of “civilisation society”. However, it is hard for to me to believe that he wasn't finding parallels in Hayes' story with a US foreign policy that he hated, the officially sanctioned hand-washing of individual rights and the numbing hatred that he perceived the whole world felt for Americans as a direct result of their presence in South East Asia. For him, Billy Hayes could just as well have been an American POW rotting away in a grisly VC stockade, left abandoned by a government that would just rather he was forgotten about. The debilitating effects of daily abuse, ridicule and torment that the belligerent outsider feels in this hell-hole not unlike the feelings of suspicion and resentment that soldiers felt when they returned home. As committed and brilliant a screenwriter as Stone most certainly is - though not all the time, I should add - his own personal bitterness seems to creep into everything he produces. Here, though, his napalm-fuelled accusation is perfectly fitting, of course. Staunchly aggrieved, colossally spiteful and simply burning like an exposed wound, his theme captures, fully, the essence of the fictitious personification of Hayes. Yes, the events are twisted, steered and manipulated into a movie interpretation of the truth, but the cautionary tale is filled with enough shuddering authenticity to help blend in the plentiful asides that condense things into an entertaining and cohesive whole.

    If I could level any complaint about Stone's screenplay and about how Parker, Puttnam and Gruber came to alter it, it is with the sheer simplicity of the finale. Of course, after all we all have been through, this makes sense. I have no qualm with that and understand the mechanics behind the plot's organic, day-by-day evolution from studio-demanded action/adventure to primal, psychological descent, but the way in which Parker orchestrates the ease of Billy's last moments in captivity can't help but feel a little too contrived for my liking. But this is just me deliberately seeking to find some sort of fault, you understand. After all that we've been through, the ultimate blast of fresh air is just as much of a cathartic release for us as it is for Billy and, thus, you could argue that a prolonged chapter of escape and evasion would only dilute the anxiety of what had gone before.

    Regardless of its perceived racism, Midnight Express is an important film and one that is impossible to forget. It batters you over the head with indelible imagery - the poetic justice of a squealer's tongue being bitten out, a bloodied and raving Billy dragged across the courtyard by a squad of guards, the awesomely eerie and depressing vision of the inmates walking endlessly around the stone column in the insane block (magnificently recaptured by Shekhar Kappur for the Omdurman prison in his, otherwise, drab and lacklustre 2002 retelling of The Four Feathers), Max's forlorn, mind-collapsed face towards the end, a whimpering, barely coherent Billy pawing at his long-lost love through the glass barrier and, as ever, the tight-lipped, tight-eyed tower of raw hatred that is Hamidou, whenever he is on-screen.

    A difficult film, then, but one that is vital, uncompromising and profoundly fist-waving. Morally questionable? Who can tell - it seems to exist in a nightmarish limbo where you do what you must to survive. Factually inaccurate? Yes - quite emphatically. Vigorously entertaining and sure to leave a mark that few other films are able to? Very definitely. Midnight Express is a classic in a genre that often seems horribly clichéd and soapish. But, as with all the best prison dramas, it is conscience-prodding by-proxy. Your own values, as with those of the inmates you are forced to side with, are put under the spotlight and, one by one, taken away from you. This is not The Great Escape - no-one here is a hero in the conventional sense. They are villains to one degree or another, including Billy and his trio of trusted confidantes. But, if that is the case, then we must become accomplices to the deeds that he, and his brethren, are forced to commit. As we are with those jailbirds I mentioned earlier - in Scum and Lock-Up, or even Frank Morris in Escape From Alcatraz - we end up willing these guys to succeed, regardless of their crimes. If anyone manages to escape from Billy's hellish prison, or catches the “Midnight Express” as getting out is called, except for the diabolical Rifki, then that is a victory we can all celebrate.

    For me, Midnight Express is as thorough an expression of seventies Cinema as you can get. Dark, relentless and grim, it reveals the agony and treachery that the real world can have in store for you, and it paints no ray of sunshine at the end other than the one that is hardest fought for.

    Even if you manage to catch the Midnight Express, it seems to say, you will never be the same again.

    Needless to say, Alan Parker's renowned film comes very highly recommend on Blu-ray.


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