Movies We Like
Like the original noir of the 1940s, the later '70s neo-noir, (if it’s fair to call it that, admittedly the definition is being stretched pretty thin), is a direct reflection of its times: Vietnam, Watergate, institutional paranoia. (The original noir often reflected the crumbling American dream). Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Prime Cut, and Taxi Driver might represent one end of the '70s noir spectrum while institutional paranoia can be found more handily in All The President's Men, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and even Jaws. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves falls somewhere in the middle. Gene Hackman takes on a Sam Spade/Mike Hammer role, a cynical tough guy who thinks he knows all the answers, but his latest case makes him realize the world is a lot more unpleasant than even he thought. And like one of the seminal '40s noir flicks, The Big Sleep, here all the pieces don’t always add up. But what is especially fun when the film is over is the discovery that what often felt like overwritten '70s mumbo-jumbo dialogue proves to have its purpose as all the pieces fall into place in the grand puzzle.
Harry Moseby (Hackman, in his mustache and hairpiece years), an ex-football player and now down-on-his-luck Los Angeles private detective, is hired by a rich retired actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward, excellent in just a couple scenes) to find and bring back her sixteen-year-old daughter, a baby-voiced nympho, Delly (played by the very young Melanie Griffith back when her voice matched her face). Like in the best of noir, the missing person is only a small part of a bigger picture. Following the swath of young men Delly has left in her path (including James Woods, still looking like a juvenile, but as intense as ever), fairly quickly Harry finds the teen in hiding in Florida, with one of her mother’s exes ('60s & '70s TV staple John Crawford) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Warren). Meanwhile, he has to deal with his own crumbling marriage; his wife ('70s B-actress Susan Clark, sporting a David Bowie haircut) wants him to be more ambitious, but he lives by his own code and has to be true to himself. Like Nicholson in Chinatown, Hackman’s pursuit takes him way out of his comfort zone, as he is exposed to a new world that includes movie stuntmen, statutory rape, dolphin breeding and finally the smuggling of ancient Yucatan artifacts which all stem from the ugly underbelly of the institution known as Hollywood (with creepy Florida also playing a role).
Night Moves famously has a big shout out to Eric Rohmer’s French film classic My Night at Maud’s; Moseby’s wife and her gay coworker are going to see it. Moseby turns down joining them, saying the last Rohmer film he saw “was kinda like watching paint dry.” Ironic, since director Penn, after making a name in the industry as a talented TV director and finding mainstream success with The Miracle Worker, then fell under the spell of the French New Wave (a group of directors that included Rohmer) and its influence was heavily felt in his major misfire Mickey One. However, his next New Wave-inspired film would make him a superstar director: Bonnie and Clyde. The ripple effects reverberated throughout the film world and he would never quite live up to that early masterpiece -- at least as far as audiences, critics and the cultural zeitgeist were concerned. Though a couple of his post-Bonnie and Clyde films have proven to stand the test of time (Little Big Man and Night Moves), almost everything else feels dated and even unwatchable (Alice’s Restaurant, The Missouri Breaks) or worse, just plain forgettable (Four Friends, Target). But Night Moves is most definitely noir -- just instead of shadows it’s '70s California sunshine. To Penn’s credit, without the razzle-dazzle showmanship of Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves is built on simple workman-like shot set-ups and even a drabness of style that helps make the film bleak and haunting.
Night Moves brings to an end that great run of leading man roles character-actor Hackman enjoyed in the early '70s. It followed I Never Sang for My Father, The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure, Scarecrow, The Conversation and Bite The Bullet (not to mention memorable supporting turns in Prime Cut, Young Frankenstein and Cisco Pike). That’s about as amazing a five-years-worth of performances as any film actor has ever had. For the role of Harry Moseby, Hackman brought his usual anti-star sadness to the role. Even when Moseby is supposed to be charming, you can see a world-weary depression in him. A great gift Hackman has always had is the ability to not look like he’s working too hard and here it’s played in spades; what seems simple on top is actually complicated underneath and by the time we reach the rather shocking and brutal final moments of the movie we are just as exhausted by all that sunshine and ugliness as Harry is.