Directed by: Arthur Penn.
Written by: Alan Sharp.
Starring: Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby), Edward Binns (Joey Ziegler), Harris Yulin (Marty Heller), Kenneth Mars (Nick), Janet Ward (Arlene Iverson), James Woods (Quentin), Melanie Griffith (Delly Grastner), Anthony Costello (Marv Ellman), John Crawford (Tom Iverson).
The post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era was perhaps the most cynical time in American history – and that cynicism affected the movies in a big way – particularly a series of neo-noirs of the time. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) ends with the futile line “Forget it Jake, its Chinatown”. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is about a man who is apparently the best at his job, but completely and totally misunderstands the title conversation until it’s too late. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is based on a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel from 20 years earlier, and Altman has great fun pointing out how much has changed in the decades since – and turns Chandler’s noir hero into a cold blooded murderer. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) probably isn’t quite as well-known as those other movies, but it deserves to be in their company – and it’s perhaps more cynical than any of them. It stars Gene Hackman as a detective who from beginning to end has no real idea what is going on – and ends with him literally going around in circles trying to piece together yet another twist in a case that had so many of them – that he keeps thinking he has figured out, and keeps being completely wrong.
It would be easy to call Harry Moseby (Hackman) a little on the slow side – he’s a former professional football player, who now makes his living as a P.I. – mainly doing divorce and runaway cases. His wife asks him to go to an Erich Rohmer movie with her, but he declines. “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kinda of like watching paint dry” he says in the film’s most famous line of dialogue. He doesn’t realize that his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him – and even when he finds out, he seems to be acting hurt more than actually being hurt.
He gets hired by a woman who could be straight out of a Chandler Marlowe novel – Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) is a former B-movie starlet, who has married and divorced a few rich men in her life, and now is living on all that money, drinking her days into oblivion. She wants Moseby to find her daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith – in her first movie) – a teenager vixen who has taken after her mother, who she hates, in that she’ll sleep with just about any guy who pays her the slightest attention (both mother and daughter will hit on Moseby throughout the movie). Moseby tracks her down in the Florida Keys, living with her ex-stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and his, what? (Girlfriend? Lover? Companion?) Paula (Jennifer Warren). From there the plot gets thicker and more twisted and I won’t say anything else except to say that the movie locks in on Moseby’s point of view, and he makes deductions and assumptions that seem to make sense at the time. Watching the film both times I have, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a different solution than Moseby does – even the second time through when I knew the mysteries. The movie doesn’t play like a typical mystery film where the director and writer plant clues for the audience to put together as the movie goes along. There’s no real way you could figure out what really happened as you watch the movie – not because the movie withholds the information (not really anyway), but because Moseby doesn’t see all the pieces of the puzzle until it’s too late – and neither do we. And looking back at all the puzzle pieces at the end of the movie, I’m sure there will be quite a few viewers like myself who still don’t think they fully understand what the hell happened or why. In a sense, we’re stuck on that boat with Moseby going round and round wondering what the hell went wrong.
In many movies, that would be a flaw – and I’m sure that the people who spend their time trying hard to decode every movie – treating them as a puzzle to be solved rather than a work of art to be interpreted will think it’s a flaw here as well. It’s not one to me though, because although Night Moves looks like a typical noir mystery, it really isn’t – it doesn’t really care about the plot, which after all really is kind of ridiculous (the devious conspiracy plot involves smuggling, and really could come out of Hardy Boys novel “They’re all about smugglers.” “Except this one: The Smugglers of Pirate’s Cove. It’s about pirates”)
So what is Night Moves really about if it’s not about its overly complex mystery? In part, it is a character study of Moseby – a character who is drifting, not sure what to do with his life. He’s middle aged, has one career behind him, another that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, a childless marriage that may break up because of infidelity on her part (and then his). Hackman is one of the few actors who could make a man like Moseby – kind of dull, not overly bright – and make him seem sympathetic and likable. He really is kind of asshole if you think about it – but everyone around him is even worse, so you forgive him his sins. But mainly, I think it is a portrait of a society that simply cannot follow along with what the hell is happening. The conspiracies are too big, too wide ranging, and we don’t have all the information we need in order to know who the hell is screwing us this time. However well-intentioned Harry Moseby is, he has no clue what he’s gotten himself into.
The movie was directed by Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie & Clyde was one of the movies that helped announce a new generation of American filmmaker, influenced by the young, European masters like Godard and Truffaut. That golden age of American filmmaking lasted from 1967 – when he made Bonnie & Clyde – until about 1975, when he made Night Moves. Certainly American movies were already moving back towards a modern studio centric, blockbuster model even before this year, but Steven Spielberg’s Jaws pretty much sealed the deal, even if we continued to see trickles of that golden age until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) pretty much put a nail in its coffin.
Penn was a major figure in American film at that time – but Night Moves may have been his last hooray – although he continued to direct afterwards, none of his previous films are have garnered the same praise as his work during this period (which also included Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man). It’s remarkable how Penn went from something with the energy of Bonnie and Clyde – also co-starring Hackman – and its portrait of ultimately futile, but liberating, youthful rebellion, into something as dark and cynical as Night Moves in just a few years. The film is a different kind of noir – much of the action takes place during the day on the sun drenched beaches of Florida. But no matter how beautiful, make no mistake; this is a dark and cynical film to its core. And one of the best of its kind to come out of the 1970s.