Director Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman on the set
Director Arthur Penn on the set with Melanie Griffith
NIGHT MOVES A-
USA (100 mi) 1975 d: Arthur Penn
When we all get liberated like Delly there’s going to be fighting in the streets.
—Paula (Jennifer Warren)
Unlike other 70’s films known for espousing conspiracy theories, this is a peculiar response to the vacuum left by the assassinations of the 60’s, when something sucked the air out of the lives of the ardent followers of President Kennedy in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965, Martin Luther King in April 1968, the presidential aspirations of JFK’s young brother Bobby in June 1968, leaving a traumatized nation in mourning and despair over an extended period of time, like a nightmarish hangover one never fully recovers from. This is a decade when built-up dreams of a better future are instead eviscerated and die, becoming an era of sorrows and tears, where the casualties of the Vietnam War lingered well into the next decade along with rising numbers feeling the effects of poverty and social inequality, where a President resigned in disgrace, exposing the vulnerability of power, where one inevitably found themself mired in a prolonged funk, unable to distinguish good from bad, as if the floor has been pulled out from underneath your feet, lingering in suspended animation, waiting for a time when you could actually feel your feet once again on solid ground. Though met with indifference by the critics, the downbeat mood of the film is a startlingly accurate reflection of the times, where a disturbing series of events seems to get us no closer to the truth, instead we are stuck in limbo, in a state of infused paralysis where despite our best efforts, we can’t seem to get anywhere, languishing in our own ineptitude, interior anguish, and personal frustrations. NIGHT MOVES (1975) is a brilliant little gem of a film, with an impressive Melanie Griffith in her film debut at her spoiled Lolita-esque best, and Gene Hackman as a wounded soul in a beautifully complex yet understated and sorrowful demeaner (which he does really well), where much of the noirish mood is taking place in the light of day, but constantly retreating under the surface. Part of the film’s charm is its narrative ambiguity, as it makes no attempt to help explain what’s going on, placing the viewer inside a meticulously well developed, psychological state of mind, which resembles having to punch one’s way out of a paper bag, at times feeling hopelessly impossible. Though it’s largely a character study that has the feeling of being a bit slight, it plays out like a technically perfect mood exercise that never quite takes your breath away, but leaves you melancholic and disheartened from the futility of the ride.
Penn’s last great film pays tribute to the 1940’s era of detective novels written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, where the fierce independence of the tenacious detective pays dividends, though here in a humorous light, as one character tailed by the detective mocks the process, challenging Harry Moseby’s (Gene Hackman) restraint, urging him to punch him in the face like Sam Spade. While Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade was synonymous with film noir, the archtype movie detective against which all further detectives would be measured, where most of all he had character, always cool under pressure, exuding confidence, persistence, and a strong inner strength, a depiction of masculinity in action, representing moral order, rubbing elbows with beautifully sophisticated women who often were involved with unscrupulous men. Like Altman in The Long Goodbye (1973), Penn places his detective in a contemporary modern setting, suggesting a certain suburban malaise, a marriage in trouble, a career in question, where he’s caught up in an existential quagmire of finding purpose in his life. Unlike Bogart, Hackman’s Harry Moseby is the picture of anxiety, a former football player turned detective, a guy who may have outlived his profession, as all the contacts and people he knows are has beens, people whose lives have fallen off the rails and are on a downward slide, probably drinking too much, holding on to precious memories like uncashed checks, where who you know continues to be the stepping stone to success, but these people are all washed up, with dreams that died a long time ago, yet they’re still holding on to the idea that they can mount a comeback and be significant again. It’s a world of utter desolation, where pride and purpose have been replaced by alcoholic delusions, passed on to the next generation who simply tune them out, walking to the beat of their own drum, showing little respect for the authority of the past. Moseby seems to straddle both worlds, recalling an era when he was riding high, literally the talk of the town, where everybody was his friend, now spending his time spying on cheating husbands or wives, or finding missing persons who don’t want to be found, looking past all the warning signs, delving into a dangerous subterranean nightmare of dead ends, shadows, and lost dreams. You’d think this was a German Expressionist picture by all the signs of deterioration and moral decay, but this takes place in the oppressively sunny landscapes of Los Angeles and the Florida Keys.
In the shark-infested viciousness of Hollywood, filled with moral ambiguity, mixed motives, and plenty of sex, Harry finds himself more comfortable in the company of cutthroats and pathological liars, continually struggling to understand the events around him, where his old-school methods bring him no closer to achieving clarity, remaining caught up in a myriad of surrounding confusion, a comment on the muddled, post-Watergate era of paranoia and growing American despair. Written by Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp, who also wrote the hauntingly spare, acid western The Hired Hand (1971), what perhaps distinguishes Hackman’s portrayal of Moseby is his own indecisiveness, an inability to counter the forces against him, the exact opposite of a man of action, where he’s caught up in a myriad of bad choices, each one worse than the next, leaving him isolated, unhappy, and out on an island fending for himself, avoiding all contact with social respectability, a loner preferring to work alone, practically hiding out on his job, disconnected from the surrounding world, slowly suffocating from the stench. While he checks in at his prototypical detective office, labeled Moseby Confidential, we already see he’s in a world of trouble, as his dysfunctional marriage is on the rocks. While he goes through the motions of showing signs of interest and respect to his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), he quickly discovers she’s having an affair with Marty (Harris Yulin), a guy whose home offers a gorgeous panoramic vista of the ocean. Offering her a chance to come clean, instead she fabricates a lie, which sends him directly to Marty, facing him man to man, which he figures is more truthful than talking to his wife. Despite the revelation, they’re moving on different tracks, as he’s heading out of town, hired by Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a former Hollywood starlet grown old with age and booze, whose only source of income are the proceeds of her daughter’s trust fund, which requires that they be living together, so she wants Moseby to find her missing 16-year old daughter, Delly (short for Delilah), who lives a somewhat uninhibited lifestyle, sleeping with every man (or boy) she sees. While she likely learned that trait from her mother, Moseby heads off for the Florida Keys to find Tom Iverson (John Crawford), the kid’s stepfather, but not before a thorough examination of the local scene, which turns up James Woods in an early role as Quentin, an ace mechanic who works with a group of stunt men repairing their airplanes and vehicles, where all have had their dealings with Delly. Moseby heads to a New Mexico film shoot on location where he runs into the stunt coordinator Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns), an old friend from his hey day who catches him up to speed, where he learns Delly left for the Keys.
What Moseby blindly walks into is like an alternate universe, where blinders prevent him from seeing how the world works completely disconnected from any moral order, meeting Paula (Jennifer Warren), intelligent, attractive, yet surprisingly open and amenable to Harry, the kind of woman rarely found in movies, yet she’s constantly sending coded messages about the unusual arrangement, where Tom appears to be having a ménage a trois with both Paula and the underage Delly, something Paula has apparently already come to terms with, leaving in short order an air of cynicism, where Paula is attentively seen serving drinks to numb one from the pain. Delly’s appearance reveals a rebellious and free-spirited daughter where permissiveness has gone amok, overly promiscuous to the point of destruction, revealing something quite disturbing on the premises. As Delly expresses no interest in returning with him, Harry makes himself comfortable and settles in for awhile. What he observes is seen through curtains, screens, and windows, often skewing the picture, creating a behind-the-scenes allure of something sinister happening, leaving Harry (and the viewers) bewildered by it all. With Paula as his drinking partner and navigator of the murky waters, they take a nighttime boat excursion with Della gleefully stripping off her clothes to swim in the nude, but discovers something particularly distressing underneath, the remains of a dead body stuck inside a wrecked aircraft, with ghoulish images haunting her afterwards. After that traumatic episode, Delly agrees to return to Los Angeles with Harry, giving him an opportunity to reexamine his broken marriage. But rather than things returning to their rightful place, things deteriorate even further and go haywire instead, causing Harry to have to return to the Keys and reevaluate the situation there, this time without the blinders on, as all Hell has broken loose, seemingly generated by a ravenous appetite for greed. The psychological descent into darkness and despair is constantly seen through Harry’s eyes, never clearly knowing or understanding anyone, never finding all the answers, where the journey usually leads to dead-ends or comes up empty. The film only grows more complicated by the end, caught in an existential quagmire where there are no easy answers, sunk in their own moral vacuum, where the best one can do is hope to stay afloat to avoid drowning. Often labeled one of the best films nobody saw, this is a taut and concisely told low-budget film, with few, if any, extraneous scenes, where the film never points to any big scenes or spectacular moments, but is instead filled with the smaller details of people constantly mistreating and misunderstanding one another, often intentionally, through betrayal or cruel deception, but also from simple emotional neglect, which in this film leads to emotional paralysis and moral corruption, where in the end nobody wins. The pessimistic nature of the film really describes the malaise of the 70’s and the bleakness of the times, a decade of lower expectations and regret, representing a growing sense of powerlessness and alienation, where nearly two decades later Robert Altman actually refined this state of fragmented subjectivity in Short Cuts (1993).