“I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kinda like watching paint dry.” – Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby
Gene Hackman is still with us but unlike others who are predisposed to continue working, he was content in setting a hard and fast end to his acting career. All that can be said is he is dearly missed. Even a less renowned project like Night Moves suggests how indispensable his talents were to the acting landscape of the 70s and 80s.
Director Arthur Penn was not an obvious practitioner of genre subversion as say, Robert Altman, but if you look at the likes of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), and certainly Night Moves, it’s obvious he took accepted genres like westerns, gangsters movies, and film-noir only to give them a fresh point of view.
It seems fair to assume this film finds its place among the likes of Harper (1966) and The Long Goodbye (1973) because it begins by acknowledging the successive hoops of private investigator films with conscious self-awareness.
However, in such cases, the true entertainment comes in the departures, when it pertains to artistic vision, content, and narrative digressions. Penn shows particular preoccupation in a man at odds with his times and ultimately, a man unable to navigate the world, both personally and professionally.
In one very blunt admission, the lone wolf P.I., Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), acknowledges, “I didn’t solve anything. It just fell in on top of me.” Later, when asked where he was when Kennedy was shot. He responds wryly, “Which Kennedy?”
This is the perfect sentiment in a Vietnam, Post-assassination, Post-Watergate age where rhythm and reason seem all but cast to the wayside. If things reach a resolution at all — and a fatalistic one at that — it feels inevitable. In one sense, there appears to be little personal agency in the current cultural landscape. It’s no different for Harry.
It’s also imperative Night Moves boast a familiar point of demarcation. The despondent point of view is already in place, but it takes time for it to build up to what might already be a foregone conclusion.
It must begin in what feels like a conventional realm. Moseby receives a request from an aging Hollywood B-Girl whose husband formerly made Biblical epics. Now her free-loving daughter Delly (the saucy Melanie Griffin) has gone missing. The actress entrusts Harry with finding her daughter and bringing her home. It’s everything but a by the book assignment.
In fact, Alan Sharp’s script is equally aware of its traditions. Mrs. Iverson inquires if Moseby’s “the type of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it: bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman.” He responds without missing a beat, “That was true in the old days before we had a union.” His fee of $125 a day plus reasonable expenses is also dirt cheap compared to Jim Rockford.
But this is indicative of his general temperament. Asked about his affinity for some grungy old antiquities from a would-be detective partner, he responds bluntly, “I would if they didn’t all remind me of Alex Karras.” Later, when he traps his wife with his crippled rival, far from the virile adversaries of yesteryear, the man coaxes him to take a swing at him, “The way Sam Spade would.”
He is a P.I. as only Gene Hackman could play one forming a beeline through The French Connection (1971) and The Conversation (1974). The core tenets of each of these varying protagonists are flaws — deep and messy. He is prone to violence and resentment and yet somewhere buried deep is a certain tenderness — a conscience and a moral compass of some kind. This ever-fluctuating identity is key.
He feels like a traditionalist more at home with the gumshoes of old than the new-fangled technology guiding detective agencies now. Hackman even rivals Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, but he doesn’t seem as absurdly out of place so much so that it verges on the satirical — even from a visual standpoint.
His emotional and personal framework is what puts him at odds with this current generation. On stakeouts, of course, he occupies himself with chess matches, watching the mark out of the corner of his eye, and it becomes the film’s defining metaphor.
In making the rounds, he questions a mechanic and one of Delly’s friends named Quentin, followed by the hotshot pilot who wooed her away. The last is the veteran stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), all leading him on the trail to his prize.
His primary case seems to be well on its way to a conclusion far sooner than we might have ever imagined. He tracks Delly down to Mexico, following the leads to her step-father (John Crawford) and the in-house dolphin expert (Jennifer Warren) who are making their domicile on the edge of the water. It’s a little bit of quaint paradise, and it feels rather like a dead-end, where crime stories might come to die.
If this is the outcome of the case, it seems anti-climactic at best. Still, something keeps us glued to the screen. We appreciate the characters and there is some amount of intuition mounting. Arthur Penn would not abandon us like this without something more to ruminate over. Night Moves just keeps on getting more and more perplexing by the minute.
It’s because the issues at hand are not localized; they only seem to morph and proliferate with every encounter, folding back on themselves to create more issues through the simple rhythms of character. Fittingly, actual travel is rarely denoted, only implied by varying cars and sudden jumps in location, thus continuously expanding the story.
It starts with Moseby but trickles down to any number of people he crosses paths with. Melanie Griffin’s part, much like Jodie Foster’s role in Taxi Driver a year later, does its very best to get under my skin, as both play squirm-inducing and unforgettable Lolitas.
Meanwhile, Moseby orbits within this confusing solar system of female relationships. It begins with the problems with his wife and patching up their relationship; because he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t try very hard to fix things. He just keeps on with his work. Paula is the one who truly tickles his fancy; she’s warm and independent — working for Tom Iverson because, in her own words, “he gets nicer, not meaner when he’s drunk.”
Talking to Paula on another evening Harry explains a famous game in 1922 where Bruno Moritz failed to make a handful of knight moves. “He had a mate and didn’t see it.” These words linger in our mind from thenceforward. Because thoughtful films do not lay out these clues without there being a payoff, and it’s true these prophetic lines of Harry’s recall his own failure. The distractions are too many and his faculties are misdirected and diverted in all the wrong places.
At no instance is this more apparent than the film’s ensuing conclusion. A befuddling series of events begin to unwind. There are fluke accidents on a film set, drudged up bodies, outright murder, and aerial assaults at sea. It concludes with what can only be described as a hypnotic, if not entirely haunting final image — for one last time Harry was unable to see the whole puzzle. He stares helplessly at yet another scene that blindsided him.
Night Moves is a film you almost need time to marinate in. Because on first glance it feels like a sloppy, less meticulous Chinatown plot. Revelations arrive when it is far too late. Yet in its own way, Penn’s movie feels deeper than a surface reading and Hackman is a messed-up hero on par with anything Jack Nicholson could muster up.
However, the antagonist and the opposing forces are of a different nature. If not quite as sinister as Chinatown, they’re equally jarring, leaving us with a wistful impact of despondency. Chinatown is made up of a world that we must helplessly accept as passive bystanders.
It can be propped up as one of the finest mysteries of all time like a tightly wound clock of impeccable foreshadowing and interconnections. Night Moves leaves us with a boatload of loose ends still unresolved and unexplained.
The mystery and focus constantly seem muddled and shifting away from center just as our own focus continually seems to drift. It’s hardly as methodical as its predecessor but this looseness still couches numerous befuddling reveals, as abrupt and disjointed as they might seem.
Of all places, our protagonist’s opinions of art-house cinema provide one last fateful portent. He gets antsy watching a film like Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s where dialogue takes precedence over action.
But it is also a film of choice — little microcosms that require decisions. It’s apt Rohmer’s characters are creatures of choice. When we look at Harry there are similar issues and yet his choices feel pointless because he has little comprehension of the scenarios at hand.
However, there’s no way for someone like him to experientially understand all the situations and, in the end, he pays dearly for it. If the moral of the story is not learning to appreciate Rohmer’s cinema, it is, at the very least, a call to appreciate that we are people of choice as much as we are relational beings. Both are crucial to life. Harry never quite figures either out quickly enough.