Night Moves (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray
Produced by Robert M. Sherman; directed by Arthur Penn; screenplay by Alan Sharp; cinematography by Bruce Surtees; edited by Dede Allen and Stephen A. Rotter; music by Michael Small; production direction by George Jenkins; starring Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, John Crawford, Janet Ward, and Melanie Griffith. Blu-Ray, Color, 100 min., 1975. A Warner Archive release.
Like the titular chess piece that seems to advance head-on before ultimately attacking its prey from the side, Night Moves ends with a pointedly literal image of what the movie has already put right under our noses: the sad sight of a decent man all at sea. Although close contemporaries The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974) are lauded more regularly today as exemplary New Hollywood re-imaginings of film noir, Night Moves sits comfortably in such exalted company. Director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde , Little Big Man ) and screenwriter Alan Sharp (The Hired Hand , Ulzana’s Raid )—had each spent part of the previous decade scrutinizing archetypal figures and genres from the American cinematic past. The happy confluence of both men’s artistic interests and abilities on Night Moves marked a joint creative highlight before their respective careers took more uncertain turns.
Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a forty-year-old ball player-turned-P.I. overwhelmed by mysteries on both professional and personal fronts. Hired by retired Hollywood actress Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to track down her missing teenage daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), Harry struggles to piece together the possible links between the New Mexico film set where the girl was last seen and the ramshackle Florida Keys pleasure cruise outfit where she later turns up. Both locations are presided over by potential surrogate father figures for Delly: kindly stunt supervisor Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) in the former, predatory stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford) in the latter. At the same time, Harry also struggles to understand and respond to an unforeseen body blow to his marriage: the discovery that his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) has been conducting an affair. Child retrieved and spouse reconciled, Harry appears to restore both his home life and that of his wealthy client—but is the truth of either matter quite so simple?
Like the other classic New Hollywood movies listed above, Night Moves revisits an historical film genre to determinedly revisionist ends. Harry clings stubbornly to the noir ideal of the independent, integrity-driven lone operative. The film, however, wastes no time in emphasizing the extent to which times have changed: Harry’s first on-screen act is to consult an automated office answerphone. Femme fatalistic rather than fatale, Ellen’s marital dissatisfaction (“your lifestyle…a private eye…it’s a joke”) is rooted largely in her husband’s inability to move on and accept a position at the computerized investigative agency that throws him Arlene’s case as a patronizing bone. Ellen works in an antiques gallery: dealing in outmoded objects and ideas for a living leaves her with little emotional energy to deal with such things in her home life with Harry. She suspects that his career choices represent a precarious attempt at psychic self-protection: obsessive lone investigation of the actions and motives of strangers leaves no space for self-investigation of one’s lonely own. Such a professional set-up risks material and emotional poverty alike: it struggles to pay the bills while containing within it a very different kind of eventual price to pay.
Night Moves shares Ellen’s sympathetic skepticism regarding Harry’s preferred way of working, not to mention those aspects of the classic noir worldview which that modus operandi reflects. That fact is consistently amplified by three closely interrelated aspects of Alan Sharp’s script. The first involves the repeated professional-cum-psychological feminine provocation Harry endures throughout. Arlene flirtatiously enquires if he is “the kind of detective who, once you get on a case, nothing can get you off it?” Paula (Jennifer Warren), Tom’s enigmatically unhappy younger girlfriend and Harry’s possible love interest, is more coolly and cynically matter-of-fact. She recognizes “one of those intent-on-the-truth types” within moments of meeting, while Delly is comparably swift in diagnosing a man “who likes things to stay the way they are.”
The second relevant aspect of Sharp’s script in this regard relates to the way in which its narrative progression systematically removes Harry from his self-defined physical (and by extension, personal) comfort zone. Initial geographical promises of classic noir fare—Harry’s office contains a framed map of central LA, Arlene’s well-appointed Hollywood Hills condo is straight out of the Chandler playbook—are no reliable guide to what is to come. The trail of clues Harry follows takes him repeatedly to New Mexico (Joey’s film sets) and Florida (Tom’s bolthole). These locations are pointedly nonurban and places where Harry fails to correctly interpret evidence that often stares him in the face. Lastly (and hardest to explain in spoiler-free fashion), Ellen and Harry’s trading in objects and values related to ideas of the antique resurfaces elsewhere in the film’s plot. As a direct result and apart from its already in-built, peculiarly masculine form of nostalgia, Harry’s veneration of past value systems and behavioral forms becomes dangerous to him. This is because other agents (Night Moves itself not least among them) prove far less sentimental in their engagement with and exploitation of those same things.
A word for the excellence and innovation of Gene Hackman’s central performance seems appropriate here. The intelligence and ingenuity of Arthur Penn’s direction and Alan Sharp’s writing are already enough to render Night Moves a notably thought-provoking, proto-postmodern American film about an historical American film tradition. But the way in which Hackman conceives of and plays Harry adds emotional heft: it is the latter quality that allows the viewer access to less cinematically self-reflexive (but no less important) aspects of the movie’s thematic remit. More than four decades after Night Moves’ theatrical release, Harry still looks like a remarkably distinctive reimagining of the archetypal LA gumshoe. Eminently, enjoyably capable of both hard-boiled punch and punchline when matters require, Hackman also brings an intensely moving sense of physical and emotional fragility to proceedings. He stretches wearily in his first on-screen appearance, sweats uncertainly and disgustedly in his dealings with Arlene, broods impotently in his confrontations with Ellen and her lover, fidgets nervously in the company of women to whom he is attracted, and enthuses heartbreakingly when mixing with men he believes to be more psychologically whole than him.
The double-cross or deception that an experienced detective doesn’t see coming is, of course, a classic noir narrative staple. But in Hackman’s hands Harry suffers for it in ways his distinguished antecedents arguably do not. Individual clues that Spade or Marlowe fail to spot often work as a perverse form of psychic self-reinforcement. Microcosmic mistakes made simply confirm such men’s macrocosmic worldview in retrospect: always proceed with caution, on the basis that most people are not to be trusted. Harry’s belated understanding of the web in which he is caught, however, still seems relatively singular in the noir pantheon. This is so in the extent to which Hackman portrays it as a decisive unmanning of his character. Among many other things as a result, the viewer can truly believe in Harry as someone who loves the game of chess—self-expression enabled through ritualized, highly considered patterns of physical movement—because Hackman’s performance of that character is the work of a grandmaster employing analogous tools.
That achievement is vitally important to those central themes of Night Moves that Penn and Sharp can set out on screen, intellectually speaking, but which only their actors (Hackman chief among them) can sell to viewers at an emotional level. Chief among these, and of course not uncommon in New Hollywood cinema, is a nonconformist critique of core patriarchal institutions: heterosexual romance, marriage, and the nuclear family. Unhappy children abound within Night Moves. Indeed, the figure of the (dis)abused child, enduringly attracted to its progenitor’s charisma yet painfully alive to the same figure’s faults, functions well as a metaphor for this movie’s relationship to the noir tradition, not to mention Penn and his contemporaries’ late-1960s/early-1970s attempt to refashion the identity of mainstream American film more generally. Paula’s self-description as someone “convalescing…from a terrible childhood” also functions as an eloquent gloss of the respective situations of Harry (physically abandoned by his parents) and Delly (psychologically deserted by her mother). Destructive fathers/father figures also proliferate. Harry tells Ellen how in adulthood he tracked his father down but could not speak to him; Tom uses his stepparent status to sexually abuse Delly; Joey, who, in another character’s words “likes to play Delly’s daddy” is responsible for involving her in a car accident on a film set.
Elsewhere, romantic and sexual relations seem as routinely unhappy as the parents and children they produce. Men routinely fear women’s emasculating potential (Delly’s full name is Delilah) and systematically abuse them as a result. Even well-meaning Harry uses his job to qualify the extent of his emotional intimacy with and reliance on Ellen. She understands all too well the extent to which her husband depends on his job “so you can pretend you’re solving something.” In stark contrast, he struggles to understand the extent to which his description of one historical chess player’s situation—“Black had a mate and didn’t see it… he played something else and he lost”—is also in danger of applying to himself. Arlene belatedly becomes more than a standard-issue Chandleresque black widow when she drunkenly recalls being “being down on my knees to half the men in this town” when Delly’s age. Paula resignedly breezes over the story of extended adult misfortune—graduating from school teaching into sex work—that finally led her into Tom’s arms as the best of a bad bunch. Tellingly, Night Moves’ arch quotations of the device of the magnifying glass, a traditional tool of the detective’s trade, all appear in domestic rather than criminal settings: both Harry’s home and that of Ellen’s lover have magnifying panel features built into their respective windows. The inference is that the hearth and the bedroom are where most of us commit our crimes. Night Moves understands itself as a cautionary noir tale of mean sheets, not mean streets.
Ultimately, what many of Night Moves’ most audacious script details and visual images go on to extrapolate from such material is a pessimistic interpretation of human life as an inexorable process of existential disorientation and decline. In one of the movie’s most tender moments, Harry comforts Delly with the unpalatable promise that life makes no more sense to him at forty than it does to her at sixteen. Similarly, while he looks back longingly on his injury-ended professional football career, the elegantly oblique suggestion is that he was in fact no more potent or protected then than he finds himself now. Although Joey excitedly remembers how Harry made a brilliant interception during a 1963 match—perhaps the only time when this movie’s central character is quick enough to see something coming—Harry notes that his team still lost the contest in question. Perhaps most memorably of all, the film’s two bravura underwater set-piece sequences—make what you will of the fact that Tom and Paula’s boat is named The Point of View—unsparingly foreground grotesque images predicated on human inability to effectively see (the first sequence) or speak (the second) to others.
As with much other seminal New Hollywood filmmaking, a mood of national malaise and misgiving arguably haunts and propels much of what is described above. During a beautifully written, directed, and acted seduction scene, Paula and Harry each remember where they were during the Kennedy assassinations. The ruefully aphoristic nature of his request for clarification (“Which Kennedy?”) and her provision of it (“Any Kennedy”), not to mention Harry’s painfully candid confession that his life has not lived up to the sense of promise and potential he felt as a young ball player in 1963, are hard to read free of wider national–allegorical implications. So, too, is Night Moves’ desire to look back to mid-century noir precisely to scope out the possibility of moving beyond it. Whatever the case, this highly welcome Warner Archive Blu-ray release (which comes with a theatrical period trailer and short making-of documentary) forms an eloquent statement of Night Moves’ claim to a place in the front rank of New Hollywood cinema. In building a formally ingenious, emotionally generous modern-day noir around a man who, in Paula’s words, persists in “asking the wrong questions,” Penn, Sharp, and Hackman succeed in posing searching ones of their viewers, whether in 1975 or today.
Jonathan Murray, a Contributing Writer at Cineaste, teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.
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Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1