Tagline: Walk into the incredible true experience of Billy Hayes, and bring all the courage you can!
Preshow Entertainment: Entertainment Tonight from 1985
Pizza: Joe Peeps
-Leslie Nielson as Captain Oveur in "Airplane!"
Let me hip you to The MoMo. Derived from " MOvie MOment," a MoMo is that one instant in a film that everyone remembers. Most movies don't have a MoMo. Some have multiple. Some have one, yet people insist they have more. Here are a few examples:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK = Fed up, Indy shoots the sword-wielding villain.
THE GRADUATE = "Plastics."
THE PAWNBROKER = Rod Steiger impaling his hand onto a receipts spindle.
You get the idea. Well, here's today's MoMo - breasts pressed against a window. That's right, we watched MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.
We watched the first ten minutes from a 1985 installment of ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. The pace was incredibly slow with no fancy graphics (they didn't really have those yet). It felt like someone was reading Variety to us. Lots of box office stats and gossip. Rona Barrett. The Twilight Zone. New actor Bill Peterson (now William Peterson) on stage in IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST, then filming RED DRAGON. It's hard to believe it was 20 years ago. It looks like 50.
AND NOW, OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION:
October 6th, 1970. America was still reeling from the Kent State shootings six months earlier. Janis Joplin died two days ago. Nixon was trying to thwart skyjackers. And 23 year old Long Islander Billy Hayes made a big mistake.
Billy wasn't really a smuggler, he was just carrying some drugs on his person when attempting to board the plane home from Turkey. But there was much anti-American sentiment going on there (Nixon wanted the drug crops destroyed), so the Turkish government gave Billy four years. And when they were up, they gave him thirty more.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS opens with a wonderful suspense scene. Let's face it, you pretty much know before watching the movie that he's going to get caught; yet even with that in your head it still manages to make you sweat, though not nearly as badly as Billy. The police station scene is all in Turkish, making it even more uncomfortable. For a moment, and against everything we're sure of, we hang onto a hope that they just may let Billy go. However, when a senior officer screams at his underling for not noticing more hash in Billy's boot, the underling smacks his underlings in the face. And that's when we realize just how bad this is going to get. Billy realizes that too.
A series of brutalities and humiliations follow; they shave his head, throw him in a freezing cell without a blanket, blindfold him, beat him with a stick, raise him by his ankles and beat his feet bloody. As the picture fades, we can't imagine what's next. Well, we can. The main guard, Hamidoui, spreads Billy's legs open. Not bad for your first day of school.
Billy soon learns that he's never going to get out. Everything he's told, and even promised, turns to dust (isn't that part of Hell?). And everywhere he looks he sees legal corruption. "If you get suspected of honesty, you get disbarred." His only chance is to escape a/k/a catch the Midnight Express...but "it doesn't stop around here." Although in one scene later on, he wakes with a start. Is that a train he hears?
Actor Brad Davis became famous for this role. It was his Nurse Ratched role. In fact, there's indeed a feeling of CUCKOO'S NEST here, with assorted characters of all types in a world where the nice guys are the prisoners and the authorities the bad guys. So bad was this movie's image of Turkey that the real Hayes went back last year (30 years after the book/movie!) to apologize for the negative portrayal. Wow. Years after the movie it was revealed that depictions and events were exaggerated. Well of course they were! It's a damn movie. Christ, if documentaries can be exaggerated, then certainly a movie "based on a true story" can be filled with convenient truths.
Among his prison buddies are the easily excitable Jimmy Booth (yup, Randy Quaid was thin once) and John Hurt, spectacular as Max, the inmate who has lost most of his mind and all of his soul. And what prison isn't complete without a greasy bully - Paolo Bonacelli plays Rifke, a Fagin with a mean streak who gets his just desserts (though I'm not sure he can taste them). The menacing Hamidou (Paul L. Smith), striding around like a silent Don Fanucci, is as good as any Bond villain. Brutal and unflinching, he's the type to thwack four possibly innocent kids' bare feet with a plank as his two little boys watch in horror.
Somewhere between writing his classic scripts for SEIZURE and THE HAND, Oliver Stone won an Academy Award for his screenplay of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. As much fun as it is to cast stones at Stone, he really did a great job on the script. Alan Parker, a favorite of mine, directed. Parker's eye is remarkable, from the details in people's faces to the hallways shot like Escher paintings. Even people's voices. It's all so musical. It's no surprise that he went on to direct FAME and THE WALL soon after.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS was so popular that it made "Turkish Prison" the punchline to many jokes (hence the headline of this here write-up). It holds up pretty well after all these years. But here's the real trick of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. They took a guy who was a criminal and made him a hero for us to root for. This wasn't Richard Kimble, Roger Thornhill or Boris Grushenko framed for crimes they didn't commit. This was a guy who broke the law, was sentenced, then tried to escape, which helped in the longer sentence. Whose fault is it that he's in there? His. He chose to smuggle. He chose to escape. Of course, the real objection here isn't that he was in jail, it was the gross punishment while in the jail. But man, if you don't speed, you can never get a speeding ticket. The same goes for jaywalking, shoplifting and strapping two kilos of hash onto your body, in a foreign country no less.
We've watched a lot of prison movies here at RMC - THE GREAT ESCAPE, CAGED, COOL HAND LUKE, STALAG 17, GRAND ILLUSION, RED HEAT. In fact, one MIDNIGHT EXPRESS character actually makes a reference to STALAG 17. Loaded with great moments, including the above mentioned MoMo (which was foreshadowed with Billy's playful grabbing of Susan's breast on the airport shuttlebus), MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is taut (there's that review-happy word again), suspenseful and full of character, moving artfully and grittily from one scene to the next. Like an express train, I suppose.