STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $19.97
RUNNING TIME: 99 Minutes
Theatrical trailer
“The Day of the Director” featurette

The Pitch

"It’s Gene Hackman playing a quietly desperate investigator. Hey, it worked for Coppola and Friedkin!"

The Humans

Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, young James Woods, pubescent Melanie Griffith.

The Nutshell

Gene Hackman is Harry Moseby, a private detective with no love for either his job or his life. His wife is having an affair with a total stranger; his job is a dead end, the cases few and far between. So, when a friend at the police station passes him a missing person case, he jumps on it. A girl named Delly (Melanie Griffith, often without clothes) has run away from her mother, a Norma Desmond-type. Moseby tracks the girl to the Florida keys, where she’s staying with her step-father. She seems content where she is, but Moseby convinces her to return to Hollywood. With that small action, reuniting a careless mother with her headstrong teenager, Moseby triggers a cascade of tragedy that leads him back to Florida and out to sea, following that all-important catalyst in noir stories: the money.

Moseby was out of luck. He had never bothered to learn
the Down South Mating Dance.

The Package

Like Chinatown, this is a noir in which many of the key scenes take place during the day. The transfer looks good during these brighter sections; not great, as there are some color-balancing issues, but good. During the sequences set at night, however, there are some unfortunate problems that didn’t get dealt with in the conversion process. The blacks, particularly, are rough, dark purples and blue, and often inconsistent in shade during two-shots and across other cuts.

The sound is mixed with the music too high and the dialogue too low. Important bits of dialogue, spoken quietly because the scene calls for it, are lost behind tone music and, occasionally, ambient sound effects. It’s a bit frustrating, because it’s so important in a story with this many twists to be able to follow the spoken logic of the protagonist.

By way of extras, there is a theatrical trailer, and a short featurette. The latter is a welcome addition to an otherwise bare-bones release. The featurette, called "The Day of the Director," is a typical filmmaking 101, but filtered through director Arthur Penn’s point-of-view. Penn clearly and good-naturedly lays out his frustrations with the process of filmmaking and second-guesses himself on important decisions. It’s brief, not even ten minutes, and contains a bit of marketing fluff, but it’s quantifiably better than nothing.

Melanie Griffith demonstrates that nudity repels sharks.
Further demonstration is required.

The Lowdown

I miss 70s Gene Hackman. The guy had some great roles in noir: Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Harry Caul in The Conversation. Night Moves isn’t quite on the level of those two, but it is an engaging mystery with subtext a-plenty. Hackman’s Moseby doesn’t let much get to him; he has built walls of snide but honest humor to deflect most everything. When something does get through — such as the infidelity of his wife — he explodes and then contracts, as though collapsing on his own gravity. Throughout the second act, he is insular, focused, and yet somehow still personable, affable. Hackman is at fine form throughout.

The performances are easily the high point of the film. Jennifer Warren, as Paula, the woman living with Delly’s step-father, is one of the best liars I’ve ever seen on the screen. The interplay between Paula and Moseby dominates the latter two-thirds of the film, and I am impressed by how handily this single relationship manages to inform just about every facet of the screenplay. It rarely works as metaphor, or transposition, but their relationship seems to crystallize and categorize the things that are wrong in Moseby’s life, the things he has been unable to affect.

The relationships Moseby fosters are such a strength in the narrative that they diminish the plot, which could put some viewers off. The majority of Penn’s energy went to the sketching of relationships, with the weak balance being given to plot development. As a result, the money, the driving force for the antagonists, comes from someplace completely contrived, and when the number of deaths starts to ramp up in the third act, there are unfortunate coincidences that distract from the drama. After the leisurely second act, this quickened pace feels forced.

While it loses some of its cohesion at the end, the larger measure of the film is tight and thoroughly absorbing. If you like your noir full of subtle dialogue, ragged marriages, bare breasts, and satisfyingly bleak endings, Night Moves is a good choice, even if the title has only a passing connection to the film.

7.0 out of 10