Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) is a director whose name I so associate with serious themes and deep social commentary that even when he directs a simple little detective drama like Night Moves, it's difficult not to attach to it a profound, pithy significance that may not even be there. In the case of Night Moves, an updated noir bathed in the same chic nihilism as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), the "significance" is there in abundance.
In the summer of 1975 I had just gradated high school and my summer job was ushering at a movie theater in San Francisco while waiting to start film school in the fall. I was thrilled Night Moves opened in the theater where I was employed, allowing me the the opportunity to see it countless times (for free!). And it's a good thing, too. for the plot of Night Moves is a real puzzler that benefits from repeat viewings. It was simply icing on the cake that Penn's solemn approach to the detective film genre so suited my post-adolescent self-seriousness.
|Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby|
|Jennifer Warren as Paula|
|Melanie Griffith as Delly Grastner|
|Susan Clark as Ellen Moseby|
|Gene Hackman as private eye Harry Moseby plays chess with himself (knight moves, anyone) during a stakeout|
Client: "Are you the kind of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman's body?"
|A very young Melanie Griffith|
Clark: "Who's winning?"
Hackman: "Nobody. One side's just losing slower than the other."
Uncompromised heroes can be boring onscreen. Saints and do-gooders always pale next to the more dimensional and colorfully-drawn villains. One of the great things Penn does with Hackman's character is that he makes him so flawed in his reason; so limited in his awareness of self; basically, so human in his attempt to defend and uphold his moldy moral code, you can't help but find yourself drawn into his quest. Especially as the mystery he's investigating begins to spiral far beyond anything he initially thought it would be. Hackman's Harry Moesby joins the ranks of many '70s screen heroes: Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Hackman's Harry Caul in The Conversation. Heroes whose best efforts fail to pan out. Heroes who are no match for the larger systems of corruption they're fighting against. In a world where the bad guys and the good guys are no longer distinguishable by black or white hats, heroism itself can seem like an obsolete virtue.
|"Does it matter, Harry?"|
I like Gene Hackman immensely (The Poseidon Adventure not withstanding), but at this stage in his career he seemed to be giving the same performance in film after film. It took Superman (1978) to shake some of the cobwebs off of his acting style. Mercifully, he's always an interesting actor to watch; intelligent and sensitive, yet always a kind of violent tension lurking beneath the surface. But the performance that really caught my eye and captured my attention was Jennifer Warren's.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Paraphrasing like crazy here, but Raymond Chandler once wrote of detective thrillers that it didn't matter much in the end "whodunit"; what mattered was the successful exploration of human nature and the examination of the darkness at the center of man's soul. In that vein Arthur Penn's Night Moves succeeds mightily and proves very effective as a dramatization of a man's inner journey. The big mystery and plot twists at the center of Night Moves are pretty satisfying (and the film has a terrific ending), but I doubt if you can find two people who can agree on just what the hell is going on. But chiefly because of the quirky cast of characters assembled and the uniformly fine performances throughout, Night Moves is a puzzle of a film that works whether you fit all the pieces together or not.
|Sensuality, 1970s Style|
Fondue and red wine in bed
Copyright © Ken Anderson