Tuesday, November 30, 2010


For some of us film fans, certain directors come with their own baggage. If I see a David Lean film, I expect sweeping spectacle; If I see Bogdanovich, I expect film school redux. Kubrick is great for icy misanthropy and Woody Allen is ideal for...well, Woody Allen.

Arthur Penn (of Bonnie & Clyde fame) is one of those directors whose name I so associate with serious themes and profound social observations that even when he directs a simple little detective drama like Night Moves, it's difficult not to attach to it a deep and pithy significance that may or may not 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.
Night Moves was released in 1975. I was putting myself through film school by working as a movie theater usher, and I must have seen the film at least thirty times. Everything about it 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
The story is ostensibly an update of the typical '40s film noir detective thriller, only with a post-Watergate deconstruction of the American hero myth thrown in. The detective in question, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman, who, like Karen Black, seemed to be in every film made in the '70s), is adrift, both personally and professionally, when hired by a fading movie actress to locate her runaway teen daughter. Seventeen-year-old Melanie Griffith, making her film debut, is cast as the sexually precocious daughter. A nymphet role of the sort she would play again in Paul Newman's The Drowning Pool (1975) and likely incite picket lines today. Griffith makes quite an impression, and I distinctly remember wondering if this girl's helium voice would change when she grew up. (It didn't.)
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 
As was the wont of '70s films, as Moseby delves deeper into the mystery of his case, which takes him to the Florida keys and has him stumbling upon a smuggling operation, he inevitably has to confront the even deeper mystery that is his life. 70s films were nothing if not about reducing all human experience to navel gazing.
Marital Discord
Wife Susan Clark: " Who's winning?"
Hackman: "Nobody. One side's just losing slower than the other."

Uncompromised heroes 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, so limited, so human, that you can't help but get involved with his quest. Especially as it begins to spiral far beyond anything he initially thought it would be. His efforts never seem to pan out satisfactorily, he's unable to save anyone or prevent anything...it's almost like he's Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974). But in this detective film, Harry Moesby is a hero. It's just that the bad guys aren't as easy to identify now as they were back in the days when they used to wear black hats.
"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 over and over. It took Superman (1978) to shake some of the cobwebs off of his acting style. No, if I were honest with myself, I'd have to say a good twenty of the thirty times I watched Night Moves was for Jennifer Warren exclusively.
As the enigmatic Paula, Warren is a modern update of the traditional noir femme fatale. Like those ladies, she's beautiful, earthily sexy, strong-willed and prone to speak in riddles. The camera loves her and Jennifer Warren (of the husky voice and no-nonsense sexuality) hinted at what feminism might have inspired in contemporary sex symbols.

Paraphrasing like crazy here, but Raymond Chandler once wrote of detective thrillers that it didn't matter 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. The big mystery and plot twists of the film are satisfying (and the film has a pretty terrific ending) but you probably can't find two people who've seen it who are able to agree on just what has been going on. It's a puzzler that works whether you fit all the pieces together or not. What is most satisfying about the film are the characterizations. The film is populated by characters of all stripes that have quirks and motivations that strike me as being uncommonly authentic in their depiction.
70's Sensuality: Fondue and red wine in bed

Nobody did heady pretension like '70s directors. Night Moves is a perfectly enjoyable detective thriller when viewed purely on a surface level, but I love that Penn chose this particular genre to make a heavy statement about human inability to connect, abandonment, loneliness, betrayal, and the ambiguity of morality.
It's stylish, well-cast, and there's plenty that is new to discover with each viewing. After Bonnie & ClydeNight Moves remains my favorite Arthur Penn film.
Paula: "Do you ask these questions because you want to know the answer, or is it just something you think a detective should do?"

Copyright © Ken Anderson