Friday, June 30, 2017

Night Moves

Some of the best American cinema from the 1970s reflected a sense of disillusionment and pessimism as a result of a series of shocking political assassinations in the 1960s and culminated with the Watergate scandal in the early ‘70s. There was a deep feeling of mistrust in authority and a sense that the United States was no longer the great country people perceived to be.

One of the best films that reflect these feelings to come out of this decade is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), starring Gene Hackman as a down-on-his-luck private investigator. The actor had a great run of diverse roles around this time (including The French Connection, The Conversation, and Scarecrow) and this one is among his very best.

Early on, the film establishes Harry Moseby’s (Hackman) lone wolf credentials as his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) asks him why he doesn’t join his friend Nick’s agency, to which he replies, “That’s not an agency, that’s an information factory.” Hackman shows a deft touch at handling shifting tones as Harry goes from a serious discussion with his wife about his job to messing with her uptight boss at the high-end antiques store she works at: “When are we going bowling again?” he says with a straight face to which the annoyed man replies, “You seem to get some kind of weird satisfactions from this sort of thing, don’t you?”

Harry is thrown a job involving Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a veteran actress whose teenage daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith) has gone missing. Arlene comes across as a bit of a washed-up boozehound and Janet Ward has a lot of fun putting an emphasis on the word “Biblical” when mentioning that her film producer ex-husband wanted to make Biblical epics. She represents the sad side of Hollywood where once beautiful actresses are phased out when they are deemed too old by studio executives.

Harry also finds out that Helen is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). The scene after he finds out shows Hackman masterfully conveying the jumble of emotions that must be playing behind Harry’s sad eyes. His new case has barely started and he’s dealing with his wife’s infidelity. She finally comes home from the movies and he’s watching a football game (although, his facial expression suggests that he’s not really watching it). She asks him who’s winning and he replies, “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.” It’s such a great line and sums up Harry’s mood perfectly. He doesn’t say much and he doesn’t have to because Hackman’s facial expressions say it all.

Harry methodically picks up Delly’s trail and encounters a beaten-up mechanic (a motormouthed James Woods), a bitter stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), and a good-looking stuntman (Anthony Costello) with a memorable laugh who’ve all briefly entered and exited her orbit along the way. Director Arthur Penn does an excellent job fleshing out these minor characters with their limited screen-time. They provide the initial impressions we get of Delly as a wild child with quite the sexual appetite.

Harry’s investigation takes him to Florida where Delly’s stepfather Tom (John Crawford) is chartering seaplanes. He finds her and begins to figure out what’s going: Tom is messing around with Delly, much to his girlfriend Paula’s (Jennifer Warren) chagrin. Tom’s also part of the local smuggling scene. In addition, Harry finds himself attracted to Paula, which only complicates things.

Gene Hackman is excellent as a private investigator that thinks too much. Harry is a complex character, haunted by his past – a strained relationship with his estranged father – and tired of dealing with lousy divorce cases, sifting through people’s dirty laundry when he has plenty of his own. The actor is given a rich character to fully inhabit, which he does with his trademark commitment.

While Melanie Griffith plays the free-spirited sex kitten who’s acting out to get back at her mother, Jennifer Warren plays a fascinatingly, fully realized character. Paula’s been around the block a few times but isn’t ashamed of her past. Regretful, perhaps, but not ashamed. She’s smart, demonstrating an understanding of the chess game Harry’s obsessively recreates, and matches him in the witty banter department. Warren has a down-to-earth beauty that has an authenticity to it and it is easy to see why Harry is attracted to Paula. She’s a sad character that seems lost in life much like Harry. These are damaged people looking for solace, trying to outrun the baggage of their past.

Scottish novelist Alan Sharp was working on a detective story called An End of Wishing with producer Robert Sherman. The former asked the latter, “Should I make this a typical detective story about a guy trying to solve a crime or should I make this what I really would like it to be, which is about a guy trying to solve himself?” Sherman told him to go the latter route and when the screenplay was completed, sent it to John Calley, then-head of Warner Bros.

The studio agreed to make the film for $4 million and brought Arthur Penn on board to direct. He was drawn to the script because the political assassinations in the ‘60s had made him depressed and “felt we needed to give voice to our grief. It was a beat-up culture.” Sharp changed the name of the script to The Dark Tower, which Penn subsequently changed to Night Moves during production. The screenwriter was surprised that the director liked his script as he felt it wasn’t resolved. They started working on it together and Sharp was also surprised that someone of Penn’s stature and experience didn’t know more about the screenwriting process than he did. The writer did find the director affable and very smart.

Penn rehearsed with the cast for ten days before principal photography, which Hackman, with his improvisational theater background, enjoyed. Filming began in the latter half of 1973 at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida and Los Angeles. Hackman, at the time, was dealing with personal issues and reportedly acted sullen during filming. Penn admitted that they didn’t pay much attention to plot and that it was “not going to be achievable, that you were never going to be able to delineate a mystery properly,” which may have hurt its commercial chances. Furthermore, he said, “We’re part of a generation which knows there are no solutions.” He and Sharp disagreed over how to end the film with the former wanting there to be hope that Harry would get back with his wife while the latter wanted Harry and Paula to go off together. They compromised on the ending that exists now.

Night Moves received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Miss Warren creates a character so refreshingly eccentric, so sexy in such an unusual way, that it’s all the movie can do to get past her without stopping to admire. But it does.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.” The Los Angeles Times’ Doug List wrote, “Few actors can communicate that kind of inner struggle better than Hackman…doesn’t require a role with offbeat characteristics or an overcharged personality to create an unforgettable character.” In his review for Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life.”

Damaged people populate Night Moves: Arlene, chewed up and spit out by Hollywood; Delly following in her footsteps; Paula, an ex-hooker using Florida as a temporary waystation, and Harry, an ex-football player turned small-time private investigator. Near the end of the film, Harry tells Paula, “I didn’t solve anything. Just fell in on top of it,” which sums up his journey. What does it all mean and does it have to mean anything? These are some of the questions Harry wrestles with during the course of the film. Ultimately, he’s driven by the truth no matter how ugly or fruitless as the last image so brilliantly conveys. Night Moves is a fascinating character study with a tangible, lived-in feel that places an emphasis on behavior, and serves as a snapshot of a battered and bruised era trying to recover from turbulent events that took place in the ‘60s.


Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman. St. Martin's Press. 1987.

Segaloff, Nat. Arthur Penn: American Director. University of Kentucky Press. 2011.

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