Midnight Express

(1978) *** R
121 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Alan Parker. Cast: Brad Davis, Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli.

/content/films/3490/1.jpgIf the words "Turkish prison" send a particularly cold chill down your spine, your reaction probably has something to do with the legacy of Midnight Express. Alan Parker's 1978 film, based on the non-fiction book by William Hayes with William Hoffer, was indeed "based on a true story." But it has suffered persistent criticism for its narrative enhancements, engineered by Parker and up-and-coming screenwriter Oliver Stone (who would take home the Oscar for his script). Their design swells proportional sight and sound subjectively to convey Hayes' nightmarish experience but also hypes up a story that probably doesn't need the help.

Brad Davis puts his heart and soul into the role of Billy Hayes, an American tourist whose 1970 jaunt to Istanbul unexpectedly turns into an extended stay. Caught attempting to make a quick buck smuggling hashish, Hayes becomes a poster boy for judicial toughness on crime, particularly the international drug trade. The long and the short of it: Turkey locks up Hayes and throws away the key. Years of imprisonment teach Hayes many harsh lessons, but one stands above the rest: he's bound to die on hostile foreign soil if he doesn't catch the "midnight express"—slang for a prison break. Such a task is, of course, easier whispered than done. As fellow inmate Max (John Hurt) puts it, "This is Shagmahr Prison, not Stalag 17" (a line that shrewdly belies the movie's very movie-ness in treating Hayes' story).

The watchword for Midnight Express is "harrowing." Shagmahr is worse than a prison; it's a medieval hellhole. As in any prison, the population lives by violent, dog-eat-dog "rules": step out of line, and expect to get shanked. Worse, the warden beats and rapes prisoners with impunity, and release can be dangled and yanked at a whim. Hayes struggles to survive and maintain his sanity while plotting escape. Among his co-conspirators, the spirit is willing, but the flesh or brain matter is weak: Max's intravenous drug addiction makes him a liability, and the volatile Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid) looks before he leaps. Though hardly choice, this human companionship helps Billy to keep a grip (though he ominously introduces himself, "I'm Billy Hayes. At least I used to be").

Hayes' account included no prison rape; rather, he described consensual sex. Regardless, the film's infamous shower scene depicts Hayes kissing a fellow inmate but ultimately rebuffing his advance before it goes any further (the bisexual Davis risked his career by embracing gay roles until AIDS claimed his life in 1991). In real life, Hayes traveled alone, while in the film he is accompanied by a girlfriend (Irene Miracle) who later bares her breasts to him in an emotionally intense (and oft-parodied) prison visit. A brutal fight that precipitates the film's climax is also an invention, as are the circumstances of his escape.

Both Hayes and Stone have expressed regret about, respectively, the liberties taken by the film and the perception that the film tars all Turks with the same brush. Turkey is meant to represent any country with conspicuously slippery standards of justice (any country but America, that is). Stone properly reminds people to put Davis' angrily xenophobic speech ("Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can't! I hate! I hate you! I hate your nation! And I hate your people! And I fuck your sons and daughters because they're pigs! You're a pig! You're all pigs") into its dramatic context; Hayes' intense anger is borne of his situation in that moment; taking the speech as heroic only implicates the viewer. The script eschews compensatory "good" Turkish characters, but then even the hero of this prison tale is seriously compromised by his undisputed crime and his increasingly damaged soul.

It's tempting to view Midnight Express as a vehicle for rising talent Parker to prove his toughness after his most high profile film to date, the kiddie gangster musical Bugsy Malone. Certainly, Midnight Express is tough, a grueling cautionary tale distinguished by Stone's gripping script, Giorgio Moroder's weirdly insinuating (and Oscar-winning) score, and Parker's sure-handed direction. The picture has been undeniably influential on the prison dramas to follow, and Davis' committed perfomance is strong stuff indeed. For its flaws, Midnight Express remains indelible and therefore—as a target of cultural watchdogs—something of a victim of its own success.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0

Street date: 7/21/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Midnight Express makes its Blu debut in a terrific special edition. The disc's book style package includes 36 color pages. Lavishly illustrated with photos, script pages, and storyboards, the book's primary content is the thorough essay "The Making of Midnight Express by Director Alan Parker."  The picture quality is outstanding for a film of this vintage: film grain is present but never less than natural, and the image provides both exceptional detail and what appears to be an accurate rendering of the original color and contrast. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound may not be especially dynamic, but again it's top-notch for a film that's thirty years old.

Bonus features include a detailed commentary with director Alan Parker that collates his many reminiscences about the project's inception, production and reception.

Three detailed new featurettes, in HD, take a refreshing no-frills tack, letting the participants speak at length with a restrained use of clips. "The Producers" (25:54, HD) features interveiws with executive producer Peter Guber, producer David Puttnam, and producer Alan Marshall. Each man recounts the ramp-up to production, including the key casting of the lead, and the unique challenges of the project.

"The Production" (24:29, HD) focuses on the shoot itself. Parker, Puttnam, Billy Hayes, screenwriter Oliver Stone, Marshall, Guber, and John Hurt tell tales out of school.

"The Finished Film" (23:48, HD) discusses the final touches and how the film has been received over the years—including the controversy over the film's xenophobia, or depiction thereof. Parker, Hurt, Guber, Stone, and Puttnam appear.

"The Making of Midnight Express" (7:27) is a vintage featurette including brief interviews with Hayes, father William Hayes, Sr, and Guber.

"Photo Gallery" (12:40, HD) is a video montage of production stills set to Moroder's score, and the disc includes a BD-Live hookup for additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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