Friday, February 13, 2015

NIGHT MOVES (1975)...


by Don Stradley

 The final image of Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” certainly gets the movie pundits in a lather. The scene consists of Gene Hackman as private eye Harry Moseby, shot to pieces but still trying to steer his motor boat to shore. Bleeding badly from his wounds, he’s unable to reach the gears; he ends up setting the boat in a circling motion. From above, we see Harry’s boat circling aimlessly in the Gulf Stream. This scene, which brings the film to a finish, has been described as a metaphor for many things, including America’s lost identity after the Watergate era, to Moseby’s own fruitless search for the truth, to Penn’s own floundering career. To me, it always looks like the boat is going down a drain (or a toilet). It’s the sort of ending that leaves a viewer wondering if you’ve missed something, and leaves critics tripping over their tongues trying to explain it. It’s a bummer, that’s for sure.

But don’t let your aversion to despair prevent you from watching “Night Moves”. I think it actually trumps the self-conscious “Chinatown” as an example of neo-noir, mostly because it doesn’t dress itself up in period garb; instead, it settles into its own time period, 1975, with Moseby being as much a man of the ‘70s as he is of the noir tradition. Moseby isn’t above roughing a guy up for some information, and he certainly beds down his share of women, but he also deals with such modern ‘70s elements as a cheating wife, an estranged father, and his share of shattered dreams. Poor Harry is not only a failed football player, but he’s even failing in his second career, that of a private investigator. What actor from noir’s golden era could play Moseby? Bogart was too self-assured. Alan Ladd was too much the tortured angel figure. Widmark? Maybe. Mitchum? Never. Hackman, raw-boned but intelligent and slightly melancholy, was born to play Moseby. He’s just about in his prime here, on the heels of those great performances in “The French Connection”, “The Conversation”, and “Scarecrow”. As Moseby, he’s the private eye as working class mug. He’s too good for the work he’s in, but not too good to mingle with the people he’s investigating.

The screenplay, by Brit novelist turned Hollywood writer Alan Sharp, borrows all of the right elements from the noir cannon: A faded actress hires Moseby to locate her missing daughter, Delly. The search brings Moseby to Florida where he finds Delly with her step-father Tom, a charter pilot who seems to be part of a smuggling operation. It’s all a bit vague and confusing, but it’s so beautifully played by Hackman and company that you won’t mind not getting it all. When you get to the end, don’t try to figure out what just happened, because the movie wasn’t designed to be understood. Just absorb it and walk away.

The supporting cast is up to the challenge of keeping up with Hackman, especially a young James Woods as a slippery mechanic who knows more than he lets on, and a 17-year-old Melanie Griffith as the sinfully attractive Delly (short for Delilah). John Crawford plays Tom as a blubbery middle-aged doofus, but his climactic fight scene with Hackman is splendid, one of the unsung fight scenes of the ‘70s, right up there with Ernest Borgnine attacking Lee Marvin with a hammer in “Emperor of the North”. Jennifer Warren is Tom’s girlfriend Paula, a slightly faded hippie chick whose resume includes such varied jobs as teaching, stripping, and hooking. Warren is one of those actresses who didn’t act in many movies, but looks familiar because she did so much TV work. Either that, or it’s because she resembles that other faded hippie chick, Susan Anspach.

The shoot took place during the second half of 1973 in Los Angeles as well as at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida. It was a troubled production. Hackman, a sullen sort to begin with, was enduring some personal problems; Sharp was unhappy with the handling of his script, and later complained about Penn’s “indecisiveness”; and Penn was in a dark mood due to the darkness of the material, which he described as being about “a country gone boundless.” The director cut scenes that slowed the action, assuming the audience could figure out what was happening. This is what gives the film its quick pace, but may also add to the sense that we’re losing something. Penn also admitted that halfway through the shoot he stopped caring so much about creating a detective story, and became more interested in revealing Harry Moseby’s inner-self. 

“We didn’t pay that much attention to plot,” Penn said at the time of the movie’s premiere in 1975. “We thought that plot was not going to be achievable, that there was never going to be way of saying ‘Ah-ha!’ in the last reel when you find out that so-and-so did so-and-so. And my only excuse or explanation for that is that we’re part of a generation which knows there are no solutions.”

Ironically, nine days after the release of “Night Moves” came the release of “Jaws”, a movie that set records at the box office and forever changed the way movies were made and distributed. Steven Spielberg’s shark may as well have eaten every print of “Night Moves”, for the arrival of “Jaws” more or less marked the end of contemplative stories like the one about Harry Moseby. There was nothing vague about the ending of “Jaws”, that’s for sure. The good guys killed the shark, and that was that. There were certainly no conversations as you left the theater about whether the shark really died or not. The era of introspective characters and vague endings was over. No solutions? Just blow it up, Jack.

In the years since “Night Moves” first hit theaters, its supporters have praised it as an underappreciated gem, and I agree. There are some great lines here, like when Moseby’s wife walks in as he’s watching a football game. She asks, “Whose winning?”

“Nobody,” he says. “One team is just losing more slowly.” 

Little nuggets like that one keep the movie afloat, even as the story becomes harder to follow.

“Night Moves” is available on Warner Home Video, and on the Amazon streaming service.

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