Classic Movie Review: Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves (1975)
Blu-ray | DVD | Digital HD
Directed by Arthur Penn
Starring: Gene Hackman, Melanie Griffith, Janet Ward, James Woods, Harris Yulin, Anthony Costello, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, and Jennifer Warren
Theatrical Release Date: June 11, 1975

– Who’s winning?
– Nobody. One side is just losing slower than the other.

By the time this dialogue occurs you begin to wonder why it took so long for it to be uttered. In 1975 America was striving to overcome the Vietnam War and still reeling from the pungent behavior of those corrupt individuals involved in the deceitful doings of Watergate. The influence of these events were inescapable, thus creating turbulent times all around, especially in cinema.

Night Moves, where the aforementioned quote is from, in particular, directed by Arthur Penn and scripted by Alan Sharp, is a feverish noir that was fully aware of the incessant confusion and mournful distress swallowing up our world at that time, rendering the population hopeless. It’s this kind of cinema, so inextricably tied to its era, that still manages to achieve a sense of timelessness. That’s because of its inquisitive nature to discern truth even if it means losing every now and then.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the world where delights are withheld, sexual passions are perverted, and friendships are to be avoided because of their corrosive nature. In Night Moves these characteristics are as integral to the film as the violence was in Penn’s 1967 revelatory film Bonnie and Clyde. Both films leave an indelible mark after seeing them, but it’s the former film’s hopeless bleak nights that we frequently traverse that are more poignant and more heartbreaking than anything in Bonnie and Clyde. Above all else, though, it’s Night Moves‘ maddening and concrete insistence on confusing its audience and its main character so much that we both tend to realize we are slowly losing and things may not ever make sense.

For our private investigator he’s been losing frequently, and wants desperately to change that. How many times can a man lose in life? Well, a lot. After multiple failures one would insist on giving up and simply observing life at a distance safe enough for him to remain unharmed.

Private investigator Harry Moesby (Gene Hackman) has had happiness removed from his life a long time ago. He’s accepted this bleak fact. No longer in the National Football League, left by his parents at a young age, and having just discovered that his wife (Susan Clark) is cheating on him, Harry is simply existing to hopefully stumble upon some truth or joy. That could be why he’s chosen the profession of private eye. Just maybe, when he successfully solves a case for a client (typically involving a missing person), the happiness his clients experience allows him to recollect tiny instances of joy that were once a permanent fixture in his life.

His current case involves locating a runaway teenage girl. This case allows Harry to become acquainted with the seedy world of Hollywood thanks to Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a washed up, third-rate actress now living off the wealth of her deceased husband who was a film director. Always greeting Harry in lingerie, towels, or a bathing suit, she gives him the job to locate her teenage daughter. The girl’s name is Della (an erotic Melanie Griffith in her first feature role) and she has the capacity to woo many a men. Sometimes the wrong men, including Hollywood stuntmen (Edward Binns and Anthony Costello) and mechanics (James Woods).

After a few exchanges with some of these characters Harry quickly finds himself in the Florida Keys. It’s here where Delly has been staking out with her step-father Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), Arlene’s ex-husband. He owns some property on the shore with his current lover Paula (Jennifer Warren). Once Harry gets settled in and prepares himself to take Delly back to her mother things begin to get twisted, leading its viewers down a dark path.

Viewers can easily become susceptible to an immeasurable amount of confusion while attempting to comprehend what exactly it is that is going on. Repeat viewings help clear things up. But what’s more paramount than the film’s labyrinthine plot or the whodunit mystery is witnessing the fully articulated gestures and, at times, mutterings of Harry when he’s in an uncomfortable bind; the utterly lonely moments he spends at night not sleeping, plagued, maybe, by his mishaps; and how he tries to remain intolerant of everything in an atmosphere that desires to crush him. What an ambiance and character to create, let alone sustain. Never again would Arthur Penn reach such dizzying heights as he does so here (though his next film Missouri Breaks, with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, would prove to be good fun, it hardly compares to Night Moves).

What separates Night Moves from similar films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Goodbye (1973) and, most recently, Inherent Vice (2014), is that Penn examines with precision the entire being of Hackman’s Harry Moseby and finding equal amounts of immense anguish, confusion, and uneasiness, but also a profound amount of courage, persistence, and steadfastness. It’s hard to include hope here because Penn has imbued his film with an inordinate amount of loss so convincingly that it’s difficult for Harry to keep his head above it. Penn is reliant on human emotions to propel his thriller. It’s this emphasis of an individual going up against a treacherous storm that ropes us in. We can’t believe one is brave enough to do so. Seeing Harry do it we are entranced. It could be because he is the lone man who knows he’s slowly losing but still he wants to prevail against the odds with a faint hope of doing some good to someone somewhere.

**** out of ****



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