What I remember:
I saw this in the theater when it came out, and was a little befuddled. This was not your standard whodunit for certain. Arthur Penn, who had helped foment the New Hollywood revolution with his unforgettable “Bonnie and Clyde”, and, in my mind at least, cemented his role as a great auteur with one of my favorite films then and now, “Little Big Man”, would not be interested in making a standard private dick flick. Here was one of Hollywood’s guiding lights, directing one of filmdom’s hottest stars in Gene Hackman. It would seem to be a very easy sell to the moguls. Penn had been hot during the intervening period (spanning 1968-1974); “Alice’s Restaurant” was a charmer based on the Arlo Guthrie counter-culture anthem, and “Little Big Man” was a big hit with the hippies and a breakthrough in its depiction of the Native American.
Hackman was coming off a great run including his brilliant turn as Jimmy Doyle in both “French Connection” movies, his signature role as Harry Caul in the Coppola’s masterpiece “The Conversation”, and his great actor pair with Al Pacino in “Scarecrow”.
So what could possibly go wrong here? Penn was famous for being an autocrat both on the shoot and behind the scenes. I recall that I needed to see “Night Moves” a second time before I could really follow the story and understand the characters. Blame it on my youth, blame it on whatever 1975 had me indulging in. Possibly blame it on the film and it’s convoluted narrative line. I remember that the supporting cast was a tad weak, and there was a laugh-out-loud absurdist line when out of nowhere, Paula, Hackman’s love interest in the movie, blurts out, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Hackman replies, “Which Kennedy?”
Now you’re asking, why did you choose this movie for your blog? I guess it comes under the heading, “It’s so weird that it’s cool, maybe even great”. There was a lot of detective genre deconstruction in the ‘70’s. Heading the list was “Chinatown”, but there were also “The Long Goodbye”, “Klute”, “The Late Show”, and you could even include “Shaft” on this list. With “Night Moves”, I think the genre was imploded. Plus, the most deconstructed detective film of all time, “The Big Lebowski” references “Night Moves” in many ways. Let’s give it a chance, shall we?
“Noone. One team’s losing slower than the other”. Ellen and Harry Moseby
Ex NFL defensive back Harry Moseby is a private investigator who is called in to trace the runaway daughter of an aging ex Hollywood starlet. The runaway is well known for her promiscuity, as is the mother. The starlet needs her child back so that she can collect a trust owed her from her first husband. Otherwise, the two want nothing to do with each other. At the same time Moseby discovers his wife is having an affair. He runs from the emotional conflict headlong into his investigation, which takes him into the world of stuntmen, charter boating and eventually pre-Columbian artifact smuggling.
There’s a joke that goes;
A couple are lying in bed after sex. The girl turns to the guy and asks, “Does having sex with me make you a pedophile?” The guy responds, “Pedophile. Isn’t that a big word for an 8-year-old?”
Yeah, that’s pretty creepy, but damn funny too. Watching a supposedly 17-year-old Melanie Griffith get in and out of clothes for the better part of two hours makes you feel a little bit creepy, a little bit tingly (Hey, wasn’t that an Osmonds’ song title?). “Night Moves” overcomes this most prurient of situations 10-fold, with a densely plotted mystery and a very well developed character study of it’s protagonist. It’s not so much a “noir deconstruction”, as a rethinking of the classic Private Dick character, giving him a rounder, more corruptible and more faceted personality. At one point, the man Harry’s wife is having an affair with says, “C'mon take a swing at me Harry, the way Sam Spade would!” It’s a great moment, when you realize that this is the 70’s, not the 40’s, and things are not going to progress the way the standard detective fare would go. There is another fight later in the film, where Harry and the girl’s Step-father are in a tussle, all the while, Paula (Jennifer Warren), the woman both have slept with, is yelling at them about how stupid they are acting, how childish. In a Marlowe or Spade story, the girl would just be screaming her head off.
Harry is a new kind of person for the movies, the intellectual jock. He’s way too smart to be a head-banging NFL pro. He plays chess (hence the title; Night Moves= Knight Moves). He has a tortured childhood, which from of all people, you learn by dialogue given the wife’s lover. In fact, all the exposition in “Night Moves” comes from strange sources; the back-story of Delly the runaway and her mother is revealed on tape while Harry is driving around LA. Who supplied the info, we never know. Every time Harry tries to get back-story from the characters it is obscured; when supplied it’s surrounded by action (a bar fight or a stunt shot), and when it is withheld, it is done in the most arcane manor, especially in Paula’s non-sequitors (refer to the “Kennedy shot” question).
In fact, the red herrings in our mystery all equal the plot itself. What does that mean? Shit, I don’t know really. Where were YOU when Kennedy was shot? Did you know sharks have to keep swimming because they have no flotation sacs? I guess what I am getting at is, the story of why Delly eventually dies, and what the main stunt guy, Joey Ziegler (character actor Edward Binns) has to do with it, what her death has to do with this artifact smuggling, and how the step-father, stunt man, and even possibly the guy who first connected Harry in on the case are all tied together is never suitably explained.
When I first saw this movie, I was totally flummoxed, expecting a denouement wherein all this would be wrapped up in a nice little package, with Melanie Griffith’s oft-shedded halter-top as the bow.
NOW, I get it. I mean I really get it! Near the climax, Paula tells Harry that he’s asking the wrong questions. He isn’t of course, if he wants to figure out the mystery. But he is, if he wants to understand why he is forced to get to the WHY of everything. Paula says that Harry should be content, that he has solved the case. But surely he is not content. He needs to know “why”. He needs to know why his wife had an affair. Dammit, it’s not enough for a person to know where they are and what they are doing. We need to know why.
Not really a spoiler, but the film ends with Harry having made one more discovery in the case- not one that wraps it all up by a long shot, but another reveal. He is shot in the leg, and unable to control the boat he is on, which begins going in circles- and we cut to an overhead shot of this. Cue credits. That ending was probably enough to kill any chance this movie had of becoming a classic. I absolutely love it, and now think it is the best possible ending for this unique genre piece.
For a very theatrical director, Arthur Penn has always had an eye for the memorable image. There is a striking visual in “Left Handed Gun”, when the gang decides that Deputy Moon is their next target, and they shoot their guns at a reflection of the moon in a pond, scrambling the reflection with the pond’s ripples. The climactic massacre in “Bonnie and Clyde” is a sequence that could have no theatrical peer, as is the Chief’s death scene in “Little Big Man”. For some reason, “Night Moves” doesn’t have a visual lynchpin. Possibly the final shot of the boat circling, or the discovery of the corpse in the submerged plane, but as a rule, it is not a source of the great filmic moment.
However, there is one very unique stylistic element to the movie. There is no use of visual transition language separating scenes. No use of dissolves, no fade to black, no clue that we are now in another place or time. I am sure that this is by design. The resultant effect is one of temporary confusion and disorientation. It’s not unpleasant by any means, but it is unsettling as each new scene takes a few seconds to register. Since Harry is in virtually every sequence of the film, you can’t use his presence or lack thereof as an anchor. What is Penn trying to accomplish with this stylistic trope? Beats the hell out of me.
At about the same time, one of my personal loves in cinema history, “The Last Detail” came out. A much simpler film, to be sure, but Ashby’s beautiful little masterpiece has it’s own revolutionary play on film language; Ashby uses dissolves in a scene on a train, when two Navy non-coms are arguing about how to deal with their current predicament- how to handle a kleptomaniacal shlemiel they are escorting to the brig. The dissolves are used even though there is no time passing, no scene changing. It is very effective in showing the disconnect between the two sailors during that particular sequence. I think Penn was trying for something similar with his lack of transitional devices, but instead it just makes the film a bit more angular than necessary.
Gene Hackman is a national treasure as far as I’m concerned. If you can show me a bad performance by him, I’ll buy you a steak dinner. It’s a good thing for “Night Moves” that he is in every scene. The supporting cast is not anywhere nearly as good, although the underused Jennifer Warren does a nice and memorable job with the part of Paula. She makes a pretty hard to believe character somewhat credible. She’s not terribly sexy, but you can see why Moseby likes her. Susan Clark as Harry’s wife Ellen, has her moments, especially during the couple’s confrontational scenes. You can tell her problem with Harry is a lack of emotional connection predicated by Harry’s obsession with “why”. Oh…and James Woods is in the movie! This is one of his earliest feature roles, pre-dating his breakthroughs in the TV mini-series “Holocaust” and the films “Choirboys” and “The Onion Field”. He plays one of the many tools who have had relations with Delly. He also spends a lot of time getting beat up in the movie. One performance that is shockingly bad is by Anthony Costello as stuntman Marv Ellman, who slept with both Delly and her mom Arlene. It’s laughably bad, and it’s not something you’d expect to see in an Arthur Penn film. Arlene, as played by Janet Ward, is a poorly drawn, single faceted character not worthy of the rest of the ensemble. The boozy, slutty, aging starlet has been done far better turns by the likes of Shelly Winters and Harvey Fierstein.
That’s a joke.
ON SECOND LOOK
Well, in this case it’s third, and I think I like “Night Moves” even more this time than the time I re-watched it back in the ‘80’s. Sure it’s complex, muddled and unresolved. To quote Cheech Marin after an incredibly cacophonous guitar solo, “What, you didn’t like that?” I think it tackles very interesting subject matter. What compels a man to find out the reason for everything? Does the world need to be explained? Should we destroy ourselves and all that surrounds us just to figure out the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Just as Harry shouldn’t destroy himself to find out whodunit and why, we shouldn’t kill ourselves trying to unravel the puzzle of life. Zen, baby. Chill, baby. It’s the ‘70’s
Oh yeah....to answer the question, on a short bus going home from school, somewhere on 2nd Avenue in Spanish Harlem.
1st Look-★★★ 2nd Look-★★★1/2