How does this movie work? It must be something in the water.
The hunt for a runaway teen (Melanie Griffith) lures P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) away from Los Angeles and his unfaithful wife, to the sweaty shores of the Florida Keys, where the teen is boning her way through a community of stuntmen and cargo pilots. Blame the heat; before he can even book a flight back to Cali, Harry falls for the girl’s guardian, Paula (Jennifer Warren). An underwater corpse forces Harry to rethink paradise, and he soon learns that little—in fact, pretty much nothing—is as it seems. Harry’s search for the truth uncovers a conspiracy and a smuggling ring, but a cryptic last reveal suggests the whole story will elude Harry forever.
There’s a hole in Arthur Penn’s film career. For a period stretching from 1970-1973, Penn didn’t work and retreated into his personal life. He directed no TV or theatre, and his only film was a short contribution to the documentary Visions of Eight. Penn didn’t like to speak about the gap, saying only that he was motivated by something deeply personal. Was it the Olympic massacre, something he witnessed firsthand while filming in Munich? Was it the death of Bobby Kennedy, who Penn liked and had spoken to in person soon before he was assassinated? Whatever the cause, it’s clear that by the time Penn returned to directing, his mood had darkened.
Penn claimed that he chose Night Moves more or less at random, grabbing “the first script [he] had to hand” when he was ready to work. The story, then titled The Dark Tower, had been written by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) and nearly helmed by Sydney Pollack before the project’s implosion dropped the script fortuitously within Penn’s reach. Penn saw in the film a chance to establish a new kind of film detective, one not rooted in the hard-nosed, grayscale film noirs, but who reflected his confused, uncertain times. It was Penn who suggested the new title, forever saving Stephen King geeks a lifetime of answering questions with the words “no, the book.”
The writers’ strike of 1973 halted revisions with the production date looming, and Penn found himself shooting an unfinished screenplay on a tight deadline. Penn predicted the chaotic shoot would result in a flop, and audiences agreed. Night Moves was a sizable failure for the studio, derailing Jennifer Warren’s career and landing the first half of a two-punch fatality that Penn never truly recovered from—his next film was the colossal bomb, The Missouri Breaks.
Still, the ever-trusty European critics immediately hailed Night Moves as a masterpiece, and American critics soon joined the cry. Today, Night Moves is widely regarded as one of the great neo-noirs, a bleak indictment of the Watergate era, and one of Penn’s greatest films.
Night Moves is a very different kind of detective story. Written after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, shot at the peak of the Watergate scandal, and released after President Nixon’s resignation, Night Moves reflects its troubled times by suggesting easy answers are a thing of the past, or at least that we’re too screwed up to find them. Penn disliked the leering nature of detectives—especially in the shadow of Watergate—and used the troubled Harry Moseby to make a simple case: don’t hire a person to look through your baggage, because they’re sure to bring some of their own.
The best scene is the film’s finale, which gets more attention below. Instead, I’d like to point out this excellent runner-up that somebody was nice enough to post up on YouTube. Harry’s reaction to his wife’s affair provides the emotional juice of the film’s first half, but it also reveals just how problematic Harry is as a hero. What should a man do when he finds he’s been cuckolded? Flip out and go crazy? Admit defeat? Harry’s unusual choice is to simply watch. Watch, and wait. The subsequent confrontation is equally bizarre and confounding.
Night Moves is a great film, one of the best neo-noirs and kin to heavyweights like Chinatown and Se7en. It’s also a very challenging film. The story is a maze of convoluted twists and turns with no solutions. The photography is sun drenched, but feels somehow devoid of warmth or open spaces. The tension seems to resolve itself, stall, and then roar back to life before dying altogether because, spoiler alert, it’s ultimately meaningless. The movie is all jab and no left hook, but then the bell finally sounds and we realize we’ve just been beaten within an inch of our lives.
Night Moves was one of a loose collection of films from the early ‘70s, movies that seemed to reflect the escalating paranoia and anxiety that audiences were feeling about the world around them. (Today, we just make louder giant robots.) Gene Hackman starred in three of the best. From 1970-1975, ironically the same years that Arthur Penn took his hiatus, Hackman starred in films like The French Connection, The Conversation (a close thematic cousin to Night Moves, and a great double feature), and this film. His performance is starkly different in each, and equally essential. He was in the spring of his career, and his work in this loose trilogy could rate against the best work of any actor in the history of the movies. He’s that good. His portrayal of Harry Moseby is brash, furious, and occasionally vulnerable. Harry is a fairly unlikable character—a detective who is shitty at his job—but Hackman makes him real. We empathize with Harry when he loses everything: the girl, the case, the man in the plane. We sense that he won’t recover, that this was his chance to become whole, and he blew it.
This downer ending is still remarkably satisfying and one of the all-time greats, often overlooked but no less powerful for its anonymity. The finale acts as a Rosetta stone, the key that deciphers the rest of the film, although it works in reverse. Rather than the ending suddenly making sense of the plot, we are made to realize that, in fact, the plot was never meant to make sense. When I first saw the big reveal, I initially thought that it made perfect sense. Later, I found the holes and tried to piece it together again. I have a working theory of the plot now, but I wouldn’t call it seaworthy. That’s the mad genius behind Penn’s film. It pretends to tell you a secret, but its secret is that there are always more secrets. Those who seek are left to drift, aimless in the currents. To go forward is to go around again and wind up where you started. The only escape is to drown.
If that sounds grim, well then that’s noir. We all remember Humphrey Bogart solving the case of the funny looking dingus, but the best noir stories always played out under a death shroud, as if the characters had glanced up and seen the swords hanging by a string above them. In Out of the Past, Jeff redeems his mistakes, but there’s a price to pay in blood. Mike Hammer works so hard to find the great whatisit in Kiss Me Deadly, but his effort is just so much tinder for the fire.
Night Moves is cut from the same black cloth, but flips it over. Penn and Sharp set Harry Moseby on a case that he’s ill-equipped to solve, and he never stands a chance. The title is a play on words, referring to a series of “knight moves” a great chess champion failed to see, costing him a crucial match. Harry saw the match, replays it on his board, second guesses the chess player, but still fails to see the knights surrounding him. Perhaps he believed he was invulnerable, like the detectives of old. In the ‘40s, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would have turned the tables on the table turners. But the year is 1975, the world has changed, and Harry is left to spin circles in the sea.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
5. Night Moves (1975)