Night Moves (1975)

The Principals:  Arthur Penn (director), Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith, Susan Clark, James Woods

The Premise:  P.I. Harry Moseby (Hackman) just isn’t doing all that well in his personal or professional life. He enjoyed glory days as a football player, but now he just coasts along doing the odd case.  His wife, Ellen, (Susan Clark) urges him to take more lucrative work with another agency, but he likes being his own boss.   He accepts an ordinary missing person’s case — the runaway daughter, Delly, (Melanie Griffiths) of a boozy Hollywood has been — and all seems to be business as usual. But then he discovers his wife is having an affair.  Stung, he flees to Florida in pursuit of the missing girl.  There he finds the missing Delly, her slimy stepfather, and a sexy beach bum named Paula (Jennifer Warren). He starts to pull himself back together.  But it just won’t be that easy ….

Is It Good: Penn and Hackman? You bet it is.  It’s been hailed as a throwback to the classic film noirs, and it is, but it’s so much more.  It’s as if the 1970s and the 1940s met for a one night stand, conceived a child, and gave it up for adoption. Night Moves went unnoticed and unloved until VHS and DVD adopted it, and now has a loving home with cinephiles who know it for what it is.

I had a lot of fun writing creating that backstory just now.  But it’s the truth! Night Moves is all the intricate and suspicious plotting of a noir (few scenes or bits of dialogue don’t wind up playing into the mystery) but with all the intense introspection of the 1970s.  It often seems unwieldy as it veers between the two, dropping out of the mystery to have a lengthy chat about Harry’s lousy childhood or hang out with Hollywood stuntmen, but it all comes to a sucker punch of a conclusion. Sort of.  You are still left holding the bag a little bit because the story is more about who Harry Mosely is (and isn’t) than it is some missing nymphomaniac.

I can enjoy fine wine, too. :(

And Harry just isn’t that good of a detective. He’s utterly ordinary, which isn’t a rarity in a noir, but he certainly lacks the dashing and cunning typical of the genre.  He’s not that good of a friend or husband either.  There’s a part of you that sympathizes with Ellen and this odd match she’s made. She’s an antiques dealer who likes Eric Rohmer films, good cheese and fine wine. Harry likes football and chess. He’s more sensitive than your average cop/jock (he studies great chess matches and enjoys his wine and fondue), but he’s a bull in her china shop. He’s more comfortable with the salty stuntmen or grungy beach bums, and his eyes light up pathetically when he’s with them.

But every character gets their due. Night Moves is also about poor Delly and her need to be loved.  It’s all about broken people, the lousiness of the world, and the way the hurt and lonely are taken advantage of.  Oh, and it’s about the uh, stuff dreams are made of.  Every noir has to have a nugget of greed at the center, after all, only this one serves it in an ending so bloody and bleak that it might make the fedora wearing predecessors go a little pale. Sam  Spade always got to walk off with a punchline to boost him out of the gutter. Mosely ends the film circling it on a hearty dose of symbolic mockery.

Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. It’s an underseen gem, and it’s the kind of character work we just don’t see enough of these days.  Hackman is primarily known as a badass or villain, and it’s refreshing to see him as schlub who has no talent for clues or fistfights. There’s a moment towards the end where a major clue drops in his lap — a clue even the audience can see and scream “Pay attention!” at — and he’s too busy eating ice cream and dreaming of Susan Clark to notice. 

Making her way through the future cast of Unforgiven.

It’s also got a fantastic atmosphere.  The scenes in Florida are just pure sweat and sand.  The humble abode of Tom and Paula is completely gross, but you understand why Harry loses himself in the heat.   They’re the last gasp of the hippies, and he’s so into hiding out with them that he shrugs off Tom’s oh-so-casual confession of incest.  Though to be fair, Jennifer Warren (playing the ’70s precursor to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) looks so damn good in her jeans it’s easy to forget someone just said “I’m sleeping with my stepdaughter.”  Wait — no it isn’t! Harry Mosely, would you wake up and smell the criminal mischief? 

If none of this has convinced you to watch Night Moves, then please know it’s also got more dialogue about nipples (specifically those of Jennifer Warren) than any Hackman movie I’ve ever seen. Though I confess I haven’t seen them all.

Random Anecdotes:  Hackman’s dismissive line about Eric Rohmer’s movies was actually included in the director’s obituary this year.