How long does it take for you to know that you love a movie?
For me, it depends. Some films, I’m not sure about until days or even weeks after I see them, once they settle in. But other films, it’s instant. As soon as Michael Small’s score kicks in and “Gene Hackman” shows up as the first title, I knew that “Night Moves” had me.
Part of it is because I love detective fiction. And more specifically, I love detective fiction set in Los Angeles. The history of our city has been told through detective stories, from Chandler to Ellroy to Connelly to Mosely, with hundreds of other authors in-between, and it’s a fascinating prism through which we can view the moral and social evolution of a town that’s never been terribly concerned with morals except in public. That dichotomy between the face Hollywood shows the world and the face it wears in private is one of the reasons it is such a perfect place to set a detective story. Our city is a metaphor. Robert Towne understood that when he wrote “Chinatown,” and he was even smart enough to build the entire mystery around the process that turned a desert into a place people want to live. It’s an illusion, and Towne nailed it with his classic screenplay to such a degree that people study it these days.
It’s a shame that “Night Moves” isn’t better known or more well-liked, because it’s a great nod to the tradition of detective fiction without being an empty homage or a retread of something someone else did. It’s an original screenplay by Alan Sharp, and as directed by Arthur Penn, it’s a searing look at the politics of sex, and the way people use it for a million different ends, like money or drugs or power, and how rare it is that someone simply uses it for the sheer pleasure of the encounter. Sex is currency in the world of Harry Moseby, and he’s a broke man walking in the land of the wealthy.
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“I saw a Rohmer film once. Kinda like watching paint dry.”
Gene Hackman is hard to categorize as an actor. I don’t think anyone would accuse him of being method, but he certainly doesn’t strike me as a conventional movie star content to just play himself ad infinitum. Hackman’s sort of unique, a character actor who broke through, a guy who appears completely natural even when he’s in movies that don’t work, a guy who couldn’t play a false note if he tried. Everything he plays, ever role he takes on, he makes it feel completely grounded. Lived-in. Honest. And Harry Moseby is one of the best fits that Hackman ever had. Harry’s a former pro-football player who opened a detective agency after he quit the game. His wife Ellen (Susan Clarke) may not like what he does, but Harry does. There’s something about the plodding methodology of slowly but surely sniffing out the truth that appeals to Harry’s understanding of the world and the way it works.
Until, that is, his way of analyzing the world starts to fall apart and backfire on him.
“Any message if I run into Deli?”
“Just be driving a truck.
Harry’s approached by Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a former sort-of-actress who married a studio boss back when she still had her “fantastic tits,” and who now lives off the alimony from two husbands and a trust fund in the name of her daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith). Unfortunately, Deli has to actually live with her in order for Arlene to get her checks every month, and so when Dellyi goes missing, Arlene hires Harry to go find her and bring her back. She’s only 16, but she’s a hellcat, stealing men from her mother if possible, fucking anything that stands still long enough. She sounds like a handful from the way Arlene describes her.
And for a while, Penn keeps everything humming along as you’d expect from a private eye story. Harry works his main case, following the trail of men that Deli has been with, even as he pursues a private matter, convinced that his wife is cheating on him. He interviews one of her boyfriends, a mechanic named Quentin (James Woods in a fairly early film role), and that leads him to a movie stuntman named Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), and that leads him to Arlene’s second ex-husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford). And once he finds out for sure that his wife is, in fact, screwing a guy named Marty Hellner (Harris Yulin), Harry decides to go to Florida to see if he can bring her back. It’s either that or beat the ever-lovin’ shit out of Marty Hellner.
“Come on, Harry, take a swing at me! The way Sam Spade would!”
When he gets to Florida, Harry’s investigation takes a couple of left turns. First, he finds Delly with no problem at all. She’s actually moved in with her ex-step father, Tom, who is living with a woman named Paula (Jennifer Warren). From the moment Delly shows up, it’s obvious that she is trouble. Melanie Griffith was 18 when she shot the film, playing 16, and she spends much of the movie showing off as much skin as possible, including a nude swimming scene that contains one of the most accidentally graphic shots I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film. I’m not a big fan of Griffith’s work, and I don’t think she’s a particularly attractive woman, but in this role, she’s not only a sexual magnet, she’s actually quite affecting and real. She strikes me as a little California girl who grew up too fast, totally aware of the impact her body has on men without understanding what impact sex actually has on her. Harry settles in with Tom and Paula and Delly, and for a few days, he just soaks up the Florida atmosphere. It’s obvious that there is some sort of sexual heat between Harry and Paula. She recognizes in him some sort of essential world-weariness that matches her own, a cynicism that she finds deeply appealing.
“You’ve seen her. There oughtta be a law.”
Everything’s kind of bubbling along until Delly finds a crashed plane underwater during a late-night swim. It’s a startling moment, beautifully photographed, and that seemingly-unrelated incident sends the entire film into a spin, with characters revealing unsuspected connections and Harry slowly realizing that he has no idea what’s going on or why. The harder he digs, the more his case collapses, and eventually, Harry becomes an animal running on pure instinct, his detective skills useless in the face of such malignant greed. He brings Delly back to LA, but why? And is that the right choice to make? As Harry’s carefully-constructed moral world slips away from under him, Hackman’s careful control falls away as well, and this is the sort of thing he does better than almost anyone. This is a great companion piece to his other investigator-sinking-in-shit movie, made one year earlier, “The Conversation,” and both films take the viewer to a dark and pessimistic place. This film suggests that most mysteries can only ever be understood or deciphered on a surface level, while the real motives and patterns underneath are beyond even a good detective’s ability to uncover. Harry ends the film literally turning in circles, no direction suggesting itself, no answer to be found. “Night Moves” may not be Arthur Penn’s most celebrated movie (that would be the deserving and wonderful “Bonnie and Clyde”), but it’s probably the one I like the most. It hits every note just right, and by the time Harry finds himself alone on that boat at the end, it feels like we’re drowning in the same ambiguous waters as Harry. It may have been a ’70s cliche to try to find new ways to end familiar story types, but with a script this smart, there was nowhere else to go.
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