Night Moves Remembered
By Daniel Moses Luft
“Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have that much to lose?
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
With autumn closing in?”
– Bob Seger
Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves is a mostly forgotten work of both pulp and 70s-style, auteur film-making.
It presents America in a state of hangover. The war is over, the protests and marches are over, the assassinations are over, Watergate is over, the Summer of Love is over, marriages are over, the celebration of youth and the exuberance that came with it is over. This sense of generational loss and failure is also accompanied by a sense of entitlement. All of the characters here act as though they deserve better than their lives have turned out and each acts solely in his or her own interest. Night Moves presents an extraordinary string of characters who, in their own deceitful ways, both echo and rival the cast of John Huston’s 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon.
The script is by Alan Sharp, a journeyman screenwriter who also wrote The Osterman Weekend and Rob Roy. This is his only P.I. movie. But here he managed to write a a traditional hardboiled mystery with incredibly modern characters and situations. It’s not an homage to older movies or pulps as much as it is a seamless continuation of noirthemes.
Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a forty-year-old ex-NFL player turned private investigator who works alone in Los Angeles. He’s not a very successful detective — he’s mostly living off his wife’s money from her job as an antiques dealer. She tries to convince him to take a job with more reliable hours and pay at one of the larger security firms. But Harry’s not having any of that and prefers to work alone. He actually prefers to be alone and is practically hiding out in his job.
While sitting in his empty office Harry gets a message from one of his friends at a big firm who passes a job along to him. It’s a missing person case. Delly Grastner the 16-year-old daughter of an aging, divorced, movie actress has gone missing and her mother, played by Janet Ward wants her back. Delly, who’s been hanging with freaks, doing drugs, and sleeping around, disappeared two weeks earlier. The boozy mother admits that they didn’t see much of each other and she only decided to hire a detective after Delly’s boyfriend called to tell her that Delly had left town. Harry finds the boyfriend, a mechanic who works for films and is played by a very young and lean James Woods. He tells Harry that Delly is long gone and had dumped him for a new guy on a movie set.
Then the investigation pauses for a few minutes as Harry discovers that his wife is cheating on him and that it might be serious. His reaction is to throw himself further into the case and travel to Florida where Delly may be staying with her step-father, Tom. He’s left the movie business and is raising dolphins and running a charter boat down in the Florida Keys.
Harry is greeted warmly by Tom and Paula, a stunning beauty who has an open relationship with Tom. Delly, played by a teenaged Melanie Griffith, is there too, energetic, angry and sexual in a way these older people must have been so recently. Tom and Paula let Harry stay for a couple days to convince Delly to go back to her mother in LA rather than have him call the police. Paula, played by Jennifer Warren, talks to Harry and reveals that she has had a slow and steady descent in her jobs, relationships and expectations for herself. She is probably the woman that Delly would turn into over time, lonely and guarded, but still physically available. Soon, after a horrific scene where a body is found in the ocean, Delly agrees to return to LA with Harry.
Of course, she’s only wanted back so that her drunken mother can control the trust fund left behind by the girl’s dead father. Harry leaves the two of them fighting with each other and the men they’ve both brought into their house. He drives away in the hope of patching things together with his wife.
But there is a third act, a very bleak third act were everything that was previously shown turns out to be part of a smuggling scam to fly artifacts from the Yucatan up to the Florida Keys. All the pain and angst that these people have caused each other is for money, big money. And Harry isn’t immune to the draw. When his wife asks if he should call the police and let them handle the rest of it, Harry, still raw from her infidelity, shrugs her off and tells her that he wants to finish this case on his own. She calls him Sam Spade early in the movie but Harry is not nearly as amoral and self-serving as the famous detective. He is starting down that path though, and things do not go well in Florida for anyone.
Night Moves is a difficult movie to write about because there are very few words wasted in the script. Every scene both advances the plot and reveals secrets about the characters. Motivations are unspoken but revealed in the film’s action. Like Chinatown a year before, it takes a second or third viewing to really catch up to what is going on in the plot. It is a stunning work of brevity, fitting for a literary genre that works best under 200 pages.
Night Moves is older now than the famous movie version of The Maltese Falcon was in 1975. It’s a timepiece for it’s generation more than any studio film was allowed to be back in the 1940s. It’s a low-budget affair with a script that is stripped to the bone. Nearly every line of dialogue twists and coils it’s way through these people’s lives as they all mistreat each other and themselves.
It doesn’t portray itself as a great movie and probably was not intended to be one. It doesn’t emphasize the big scenes and it occasionally has moments of hammy dialogue. It’s not perfectly structured but its flaws are apparent only after repeated viewings — something few people have done. But it does tackle the culture that spawned it. It is an examination of the 70s, a decade of regret, lowered expectations, and selfishness while that decade was still limping on.
It’s the kind of small movie that does nothing at the box office but is rediscovered on cable or video and held in high esteem by a later audience. The problem is that the audience in question never found the movie. Released a few years after Arthur Penn’s big movies Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, Night Moves was a quiet film, a private detective film that was lost in the year of Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon. Gene Hackman leads a great cast through an extremely complex script in a mere hour and 40 minutes. The viewer must pay attention or watch it again. Unfortunately, most chose never to see it the first time.
* * * * *
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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.
Respectfully submitted by Daniel Moses Luft, June 2014. Daniel lives in Somerville MA with his wife and four kids. He’s had fiction published in the Best New England Crime Stories 2012 and 2013 as well as Out of the Gutter, Spinetingler and Beat to a Pulp. He has reviewed books for mostlyfiction.com, The Violent World of Parker, and Mystery Scene. He’s also dragged his wife to Moscow for their honeymoon.