Sam Wiebe Introduces the 1974 Classic
Slated to introduce Night Moves at the Vancouver Film Center in August 2022, Canadian crime writer Sam Wiebe, the creator of private eyes Dave Wakeland and Michael Drayton, confessed that “It’s one of my favorite PI films and neo-noirs, and a million times better than Altman’s very good The Long Goodbye, striking the same notes more percussively, more gracefully, and with more style. Below is the text of his introduction, reprinted with permission.
The private eye story has always had an affinity with the family drama. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep are two of the best early examples of this—to solve the case the detective must delve into a family’s tragic history, finding secrets hidden in the past.
Ross MacDonald did this better than any other novelist. Nearly every book in his Lew Archer series involves generational trauma, unresolved Oedipal conflicts, secret family histories, crimes, lies, and perversions heaped one on top of the other. Excellent stuff.
That same spirit animates NIGHT MOVES, the 1975 collaboration between Arthur Penn (who directed Bonnie and Clyde) and Scottish screenwriter and novelist Alan Sharp. This is a story about two broken families: the family of Harry Moseby, a detective whose marriage is at breaking point; and the family of Delly Grastner, a teenager whose broken home and hypersexed mother have caused her to run away. Harry is hired to find Delly, which leads him from L.A. to a film set in New Mexico, to the Florida Keys and back.
There’s a lot to love in Night Moves. It boasts one of Gene Hackman’s best performances, as a complex, frustrated, stubbornly independent and seriously wounded private eye. Jennifer Warren gives a terrific performance as Paula, who’s somehow at the center of the conspiracy Harry uncovers. Melanie Griffith and Edward Binns and Susan Clark are all great as well. The score by Michael Small is haunting and whimsical. The chess match Harry mentions is a fascinating study of missed opportunity. There’s a strange and surreal dance scene which brings to mind Twin Peaks. And the film has some of the greatest dialogue, including a line later borrowed by David Simon’s TV show The Wire.
But what makes the film special, to me, is what makes the 70s special as a decade for film. Every other era of American film history is given over to winners. The 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, an unbroken string of John Wayne cavalry rescues, Cary Grant getting the girl, Katherine Hepburn getting the guy, Humphrey Bogart doing what’s right…The 80s, 90s, most of the 2000s, the same thing. America loves winners. They love winners so much that in their last election, the outgoing president couldn’t admit he’d lost. What a stunning and unfathomable lack of character that shows.
But 70s movies are about losers, and while winning is great, losing is more fascinating, because it involves reflection, recognition, maturity, and hopefully growth. There’s a truth in losing, and a poetry in losing, and a recognition of human frailty and an appreciation for life which you’ll never get if you just endlessly win and win.
Night Moves is a film about people who lose. I don’t know what it says about me that I was asked to introduce it. But it’s an honor, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
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(1975, Warner Brothers)
Tagline: Maybe he would find the girl… maybe he would find himself.
Screenplay by Alan Sharp
Directed by Arthur Penn
Produced by Robert M. Sherman
Starring Gene Hackman as HARRY MOSEBY
Also starring Susan Clark, Jennifer Warren, John Crawford, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, James Woods, Melanie Griffith, Dennis Dugan, Maxwell Gail, Jr.