Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gene Hackman in Night Moves (1975): Winner Lose All

Unjustifiably forgotten today, Arthur Penn's 1975 Night Moves stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, a former football hero who now tries to cut it as a private detective, and one obsessed with chess at that. Sporting one of the finer non-Burt Reynolds mustaches of '70s cinema, Hackman is at his everyman best, and is as good here as he is in The French Connection or The Conversation or, hell, Superman. Night Moves may not have the Polanski/Towne/Nicholson cachet of Chinatown, the street hassle energy of Mean Streets, or the comic genre revisionism of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, but it's still one of the great crime/neo-noir movies of the decade. It's also part of a loose group of films of the time that were redefining and deconstructing the private eye heroisms of the 1940s that movie audiences by then had grown up with.

I wish I could recall how Night Moves ended up in my Netflix queue. I'd read Robert Kolker's seminal work of film criticism, A Cinema of Loneliness, but too long before to recall its inclusion. Regardless, one Friday night it was me, a bottle of my beloved Evan Williams green label, and the DVD. On first viewing it leapt to the top of my list of favorite '70s movies, or just favorite movies. Later that night I ended up at an impromptu late-night gathering at a friend's house, still clutching my bottle but sharing it now, rhapsodizing at length about this amazing movie no one had heard of. My friends are, thankfully, a tolerant bunch.

Night Moves is well aware of its crime movie pedigree, and mines similar territory as literary forebears Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald, respectively, with a convoluted plotline that stretches from LA to the Florida Keys. As the guy sleeping with Harry's wife says to him, "Come on, Harry, take a swing at me, like Sam Spade would!" Could anyone imagine Bogart's woman cheating on him like Harry's wife does? No way. It's tough being a PI in the modern world, everyone knows your playbook from old movies and dime-store paperbacks. Maybe that's where you get your moves yourself, huh, Harry? There, and that chess book whose plays you can't quite master.

Screenwriter Alan Sharp filled Night Moves with the kinds of bitter, revelatory bits of dialogue that seem snappy and off-the-cuff but actually reveal all too much about a character's mindset. After finding his wife cheating on him, Harry comes home and slumps in front of a TV watching a football game. When his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) comes in not knowing that he knows, she innocently asks, "Who's winning?" "Nobody," Harry tells her, "One side's just losing slower than the other." Later when they fight, Harry angrily throws his glass into the sink, then turns on the garbage disposal which grinds up the shards, making a horrible noise. "Will you turn that off?! I can't hear myself think!" she yells. "Lucky you," Harry deadpans.

The basics: Arlene Grastner (Janet Ward) hires Harry to track down her daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith, barely of age) and bring her back home. A faded, aging, drunken former B-movie star jealous of her daughter's power over men, Arlene seems put out not so much by Harry's fee but by his rejection of her advances. After a sojourn in the film-making world with old stuntmen friends of Arlene's, looking for clues, eventually Harry heads down to the Florida Keys. Tom Iverson (John Crawford), Arlene's ex-husband and Delly's stepfather, runs a boat charter there; Harry suspects - correctly - that's where Delly is. There, he also finds Paula, Iverson's lady friend (the too-little-seen '70s actress Jennifer Warren) whose sun-worn face and ivory teeth are warm and inviting, giving Harry another reason stick around Florida. "Down here I'm considered a good-looking chick," she tells him. The family dynamics, however, are screwed up indeed.

Harry spies Paula through the porch screen as she doffs her hat and her golden hair spills out unexpectedly and they exchange a flirtatious glance. But then Iverson returns home from his boat a moment later and Delly and Iverson's playful greeting hints at an inappropriate relationship; this hint is then confirmed when Paula takes a quick gulp of whiskey. Griffith is young and nubile and believable enough to sway men twice, three times her age to her bidding ("God, there oughta be a law," Iverson says. "Actually, there is," Harry replies drily). It's all laid out; Harry's question of "Are you with Tom?" is rendered moot.

When Harry shows Paula some historic chess moves that night, we get to the heart of the movie: three moves by a black knight which put the opponent in checkmate. "It's a beauty," Paula says. Harry continues, "But he didn't see it. He played something else and he lost. I bet he regretted it for the rest of his life. I know I would have. As a matter of fact I do regret it, and I wasn't even born yet." "That's no excuse," Paula says suddenly. O pun, metaphor, and foreshadowing, how you do go on.

Night Moves is, interestingly enough, more about Harry's efforts to know, to understand, to impress himself with this sleuthing skills - years earlier he had found his father who'd abandoned him as a kid; we're led to believe that's what got his career started - than it is about the intricacies of plot mechanics. "Do you ask because you wanna know, or is it just something you think a detective should do?" Paula snaps at Harry as she drives Iverson's boat out for a little night-swimming with Delly in tow. Harry isn't even sure. With his salvageable marriage crumbling around him, Harry continues to chase after clues to a case he thinks he can comprehend.

Night Moves is about perception. Harry perceives everything askance, mediated, even obscured, through screens or windows or water, and never quite grasps what is right in front of him. The only thing he does grasp at first sight, his wife's infidelity, he does little about. It's about questions, even if the asking is the most important part, not the answers. "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" Paula asks Moseby as they parry before making love. "Which Kennedy?" is his reply. And his full answer says a lot; when JFK was shot he was still playing football but by the time RFK is dead he is a private eye uncovering people's sordid affairs. We can infer all we need on what happened in the interim. Then Harry asks her why she asked that particular question, and her motivation is perfect: "It's a question everyone knows the answer to."

There's something indefinable about Night Moves, something in Hackman's Harry that haunts, lingers, unsettles. Is it the movie's fatalistic tone? There's a sense that Harry is failing, spinning his wheels, caught between LA and the Florida Keys, between his wife, Delly, and Paula, between the macho stunt men he befriends who have things to hide, and the crippled man with whom his wife cuckolds him. Harry's playing some other move the whole time; he seems not to know when to listen. A major question of identity could have been answered when Delly, after being returned home, leaves him a message on his (ancient, enormous) answering machine, but he snaps it off when Ellen arrives at his office, looking for forgiveness. An all-important bit of information is missed by the private eye as he considers giving up the job. O irony, will you never end?

Night Moves ends terrifically, on high notes of violence, revelation, doubt, and loss. Before Paula dives to find the treasures that are the movie's MacGuffin, Harry takes her goggles, swipes them in the ocean to clear them, and hands them back to her: he has now poisoned her vision too, and she barely sees what's coming when it finally does. I can only imagine the audience's trudge back up the aisle of the theater after such an ending, as the credits roll to Michael Small's tinkly, noir-ish score. Small's scoring was integral to a handful of great '70s thriller flicks: Klute, The Parallax View, Stepford Wives, Marathon Man, The China Syndrome. Woah. That's some résumé.

Hackman with director Penn on location

So, where did Harry Moseby - or, as it says on his card, Moseby Confidential ("At least it doesn't have an eye printed on it" he tells a young James Woods) - go wrong? How did he wind up there at movie's end, blinded and bloodied by his point of view, going around in circles? Well, the way the plot works out, he's also going back to the beginning of the movie; as Ellen says when he's boarding a plane to Florida for the second time: "If you don't leave, you can't come back." I still wonder if he ever did. Perhaps he should've had that eye printed on his card after all.


Anonymous said...

Gene Hackman rocks! We just rented French Connection 1 & 2 from the library and watched it on the weekend! Popeye Doyle is a bit of a dick, but he is a fascination to watch! I will have to add 'Night Moves' to the queue. The never-ever ending queue!

Will Errickson said...

NIGHT MOVES definitely made me appreciate Hackman more. SCARECROW, THE CONVERSATION, CISCO PIKE and PRIME CUT are more of his must-see movies of the '70s.

Nathaniel Beal said...

Not only is "Night Moves" inventive and extraordinarily well written, but the intertextuality of the Hollywood industry was brilliantly handled visually. I am also always impressed by characters that tell the truth because they know that it will be taken the wrong way and be confusing to the private eye a la John Huston in "Chinatown". I've been toying with an idea in my own script that I didn't think would play until I saw this film. Gene Hackman is the tits. His chops are really evident in the way he plays type and then loses his way. Very impressive. Getting past the mustache, his hair should win some type of award in this film. Best line... his wife says "I can't hear myself think" and Hackman says "lucky you!". Funny that James Woods also plays the bad guy in "Against All Odds" which is another one about an ex-football player working a missing persons case.

Nathaniel Beal said...
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Nathaniel Beal said...
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kp said...

Great review and viewpoint of Night Moves. Such an underrated film. Have revisited this one many times and I always come away with a slightly different viewpoint. A hard boiled, noirish film, yet in some ways very intimate. This one and Klute are my two favorites from the time period

Will Errickson said...

Thanks KP! KLUTE is a fave of mine as well, Fonda is spectacular in it. Maybe a review here one day...

Anonymous said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Arthur Penn Friday at

Keep up the good work!