Film: 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 ….
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.
Making her way through the future cast of Unforgiven.
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.