Saturday, April 20, 2019

Midnight Express

Another movie I had never blogged about before is Midnight Express, so when it was on TCM during 31 Days of Oscar I recorded it in order to be able to do a full-length post on it.

This is another one where most people probably already know the barebones plot outline. Brad Davis stars as Billy Hayes, an American who has been vacationing in Istanbul, Turkey in 1970 with his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle); the two are about to go home. But before they do we see Billy wrapping up a bunch of stuff in tin foil and taping it to his body. Obviously it's drugs (specifically, hashish), and Billy is trying to smuggle them out of Turkey for reasons that are never fully mentioned.

Billy is understandably nervous, and he has good reason to be: smuggling drugs carries a heavy penalty in the Turkish legal system (whether or not it should is beside the point for the purposes of this review), and there's probably always been a trope about the horrors of third world prisons, as if American prisons weren't bad enough. Sure enough, Billy gets caught just as he's about to board the plane. Tex (Bo Hopkins) claims to be from the consulate and trying to get Billy to finger the guy who sold him the hash in exchange for a lighter sentence, but Billy for whatever reason doesn't belive this and tries to flee.

Pretrial detention is bad enough, but Billy has a lot going against him. He tried to flee, he's a tourist and the Turks want to make a point about tourists not being drug mules. And, this is apparently a period during which the US and Turkey didn't have the best of relations, so the Turks decide they're going to make an example out of Billy. At trial, he gets four years, and that's only for possession, not smuggling.

If the original detention was bad, prison is worse. Billy meets a couple of westerners who will be about the only people he can trust, if he can even trust them. Jimmy (Randy Quaid) is an American bent on escaping; Max (John Hurt) is an Englishman who seems to have some pull; and Erich (Norbert Weisser) is a Swede. They're harassed by Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), as well as by the discipline of the Turkish guards, which can be even more severe.

Billy does his time, but the Turkish legal system works in mysterious ways, and less than two months before he's set to be released he's told that the authorities have appealed the sentence all the way to the constitutional court and that the judges there have decreed Billy receive a much harsher sentence. He's not going to be let out of prison any time soon.

Supposedly, escape would be easier from the sanatorium than the regular prison, except that this would put Billy and the rest in with the criminally insane, which might be an even less appealing prospect than being in the general population. Still, if that's the way to escape....

Midnight Express states at the beginning that it's based on a real case, and the real-life Billy Hayes gets a screenwriting credit for having written the book from which the movie is taken. (The main screenwriting credit goes to a young Oliver Stone.) I haven't read the book, although reading about the movie suggests that there are several differences between the book and movie. I'm also not certain how much of either is totally accurate.

The movie is brutal, understandably so, and having it set in Turkey has resulted in quite a few critics whining about racial stereotypes. (Indeed, filming had to be done in Malta because Turkish authorities unsurprisingly wouldn't let them film in Turkey.) However, with the movie being about a prisoner's brutal prison experiences, it has to be set somewhere. Were the producers supposed to create a fictitious country so as not to upset everybody's sensibilities? Since the actual events happened in Turkey, everybody would have known the fictional country was a stand-in for Turkey anyway.

Midnight Express isn't perfect, in that it feels at times as if there's not enough of a plot. Again, however, the real-life Billy Hayes was trying to survive, and that's a pretty basic plot. If you haven't seen Midnight Express before, I can certainly recommend it.

TCM lists it as being part of a box set with a bunch of other 70s movies, while Amazon doesn't seem to have that set, but a standalone DVD and streaming available.

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