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 (Bonnie and 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 graduated 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 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
The plot of Night Moves 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 teenage 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  stakeou

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
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 notwithstanding), 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.
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. I was most impressed by her natural acting style and striking presence. To me, Warren's husky-voiced, no-nonsense sexuality hinted at what feminism might have inspired in the contemporary screen sex symbol.
Harris Yulin as Marty Heller

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 plentiful and satisfying, and the film has a really sensational ending. But I doubt if you'd be able to 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 or not you can fit all the pieces together.
In case you forget you're watching a '70s movie, there's a post-coital scene 
where our couple enjoy red wine and fondue in bed 

Nobody did heady pretension like '70s directors. Night Moves is a perfectly enjoyable detective thriller when viewed on a strictly surface level, but I love that Penn chose this particular genre to make a heavy statement about the human inability to connect, abandonment, loneliness, betrayal, and the ambiguity of morality.
It's stylish, well-cast, and there's plenty to discover in the plot and in the performances with each viewing. After Bonnie & ClydeNight Moves remains my favorite Arthur Penn film.
"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  2009 - 2010