MIDNIGHT EXPRESS —-“Sit down for a moment, Billy. I’m afraid I – have some bad news for you.” In 1970, foolish young American tourist William Hayes got caught trying to smuggle a couple pounds of hashish out of Turkey. Years of miserable prison time and the prospect of a lifetime more of it prompted an eventual do-or-die escape. His ghost-written account was used as basis for this gripping 1978 hit, 121 minutes of nerve-twisting tension so convincingly done that it set hostel bookings in Istanbul back to the time of the Trojan War. *
Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), nabbed for being a dope about dope, endures horrific treatment in practically medieval conditions while his family puts forlorn hope in an unfathomable and unforgiving legal system. Among his fellow f–‘d foreigners are gentle, zoned-out addict ‘Max’ (John Hurt) and ready-to-blow ‘Jimmy’ (Randy Quaid). Viciousness and brutality are a constant. Things go from terrible to unimaginable.
The script was written by 31-year-old hopeful Oliver Stone, who only had one 4-year-old credit at the time (Seizure, seized up at #134 in 1974), and direction was entrusted to Alan Parker; his only previous feature film had been the kiddie musical Bugsy Malone. Apart from a few establishing shots of Istanbul done on the sly, filming in Turkey was out of the question, so Malta was tapped, grubbing up the island’s 16th century Fort St.Elmo as a set.
Tasking to some because of its despair and violence, controversial because of the one-sided depiction of not just harsh Turkish prisons but of Turks in general, it hit like a ton of fiery baklava at Cannes, then went on to great critical and financial success. Costing only $1,800,000 to make, with more than that amount poured into marketing when it was apparent it would go big, it freaked audiences out of $34,200,000 in the States, 17th for the year. The don’t-do-this-away-from-home chiller did quite well in England and France, though it flopped in Germany, which had a sizable Turkish immigrant population. Stone’s take no prisoners screenplay won an Oscar, as did Giorgio Moroder’s pulsating music score; nominations came for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Hurt) and Film Editing—Gerry Hambling did 13 films with Parker, and was AA-nominated for five of those.
Knowing that the film-makers indulged in some major fabrications doesn’t take away from the raw visceral pull of their storytelling skills, tapping into nightmare territory with a vivid sense of place, and some choice casting. Davis, 28, with his close-set, guilt-indicative eyes, looks like the perfect candidate for lockup abuse; life imitating art, the actor’s personal problems and outrageous behavior quickly throttled his career. Since Davis is not a hug-me type and Hayes was obviously guilty of being a complete idiot, we don’t feel sympathy for them as much as we just writhe in distinct unease over how easy it could for any of us to run into a situation we can’t escape.
The other cast members earn more attention. Quaid’s amusingly explosive, while Hurt is outstanding as the most sympathetic of the damned. Once-busy character actor Mike Kellin—104 film & TV credits between 1950 and 1983—has his most telling minutes ever of screen time as Billy’s anguished father. On the villain side, Paolo Bonacelli is perfectly loathsome as the disgusting stoolie ‘Rifki’, but the one guy who sticks most in the memory and nearly steals the film out from the rest is hulking Paul L. Smith. Truly intimidating as brutish guard ‘Hamidou’, a dark-force-of-nature ogre who relishes his work, Smith, in character, got carried away on the job and physically hurt some of the other actors.
With Irene Miracle, Norbert Weisser, Franco Diogene (useless super-oily lawyer ‘Yesil’), Peter Jeffrey (the lunatic rambling about “bad machines“), Bo Hopkins, Kevork Malikyan, Michael Ensign, Gigi Ballista. Cinematography by Michael Seresin, who did six more gigs for Parker as well as seeing to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
* Stone, years later: “I think the Turks had a point…it’s extreme. I think the humor on the screenplay might have softened it if some of it had made it into the movie, but it didn’t. So, the Turks were right. It was rabid, but I was young.”
Billy Hayes apologized all over the place, yet his claim to dubious fame gave him a lifelong income stream much greater than his ill-fated go at drug-smuggling. Further digging may be rewarded by the 2017 documentary Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey.
No doubt spending time in a Turkish prison isn’t like kicking back on Bora Bora, but outside of a few Scandinavian countries, how many of the world’s lockups are going to be? Your stumble reviewer recalls entering Turkey on a train from Greece in 1996, joining other foreign travelers in the car by chucking everything suspicious down to toothpaste out the window before the border. The Turkish customs guys could not have been more laid back and welcoming.