Legendary director Arthur Penn passed away of congestive heart failure this week at the age of 85. His most famous directorial effort was undoubtedly the renowned Bonnie and Clyde, but since this column does not focus on films that are already well-known, today I will be covering a highly underrated gem from his filmography. Penn did a lot to subvert the conventions of the gangster film and taboos of screen violence in Bonnie and Clyde, and his acclaimed 1970 film, Little Big Man, did a lot of to subvert the conventions of the western. Therefore, it’s only appropriate that his 1975 film, Night Moves, would make an attempt to subvert the conventions of the private detective genre. The seventies were a prominent time for doing unconventional things with the private eye story and turning the genre on its head, as demonstrated by such famous films as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. Alas, Night Moves is nowhere near as well-known and was pretty much overlooked on its original release, but it has built up a pretty decent following in subsequent years. This is a film noir tale with a typically convoluted narrative, but the difference is that Night Moves isn’t so much concerned with telling a story than allowing the viewer to share the angst and confusion of the private eye who’s trapped in the middle of it.
The title Night Moves is a pun on the chess term “knight moves”. The film’s protagonist, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), is a chess aficionado, and chess is used as a metaphor for the character’s inability to make the correct moves at the correct times and not realizing the mistakes that he has made until it is too late. Harry Moseby is a former football star who was forced to prematurely retire because of an injury and now works as a low-rent private investigator who specializes mainly in divorce and infidelity cases. It’s gradually revealed that Harry decided to get into the private eye business simply because he had once made a successful attempt at tracking down his father, who had abandoned him as a child. However, after finding him, Harry chose not to approach or speak with his father, a decision that clearly haunts him throughout the entire film. At the beginning of the film, Harry is hired by an alcoholic former actress to track down her 16-year old runaway daughter Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith), though her desire to get her back is motivated mainly by Delly’s trust fund and not by love. Anyway, Harry soon tracks Delly down to Florida, where she is staying with her former stepfather. He also meets up with a woman named Paula (Jennifer Warren) and it isn’t long before the two of them become embroiled in an affair of their own. Harry eventually returns Delly to her mother, but that only leads to the unraveling of a very convoluted plot that would be difficult to fully describe here.
Harry’s deep-seated regret about never confronting his father seems to eat away at him, so, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, he decides not to sit back and do “as little as possible”. He decides to delve much deeper into the case, which only leads a lot of bad things happening to a lot of people. On paper, the complicated case presented in Night Moves probably looks like a fairly routine detective story. However, the film is first and foremost a character study of Harry Moseby, so the details of the plot really don’t matter that much. A lot of elements in the plot are murky and unexplained and it’s almost impossible to fully understand everything that happens. But that is the whole point. Like many classic detective stories, the protagonist is featured in every single scene, so the viewer is never allowed to learn any information that the lead character doesn’t know and winds up figuring out everything at the same time. The difference this time around is that Harry Moseby is a bad private detective. If you break down the entire narrative, Harry never really does figure out anything on his own and only finds the success that he does through sheer luck. Even though he specializes in infidelity cases, he’s completely oblivious to the fact that his own wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), is having an affair with another man, and when he founds out, he does not handle it in the most mature fashion.
Near of the end of the film, Harry even admits to himself: “I didn’t solve anything. It just fell in on top of me”. Night Moves winds up concluding with one hell of a strong climax, where the solution to the mystery isn’t revealed until the last few seconds and Harry realizes that he has finally figured everything out, but that it’s too late for him to do anything about it. The plot’s final revelation will make the viewer want to go back and rewatch the film and look at everything in an entirely different light, but Harry doesn’t have that luxury and the last shot in the film is a perfectly metaphor for his existence. Many actors would have found it impossible to play a character as ineffectual as Harry Moseby and make him interesting and sympathetic, but Gene Hackman pulls it off and gives one of his career-best performances. Though a relatively unknown actress, Jennifer Warren also delivers a strong turn as Paula, one of the more unconventional, but interesting female characters ever seen in a film noir picture. Melanie Griffith makes a very memorable film debut as the “jail bait” femme fatale, Delly, and the movie also features a very early performance from a young James Woods as one of Delly’s many boyfriends. The screenplay by Alan Sharp is cleverly constructed and contains many passages of (no pun intended) sharp dialogue, such as this exchange, where Harry finds out that Delly’s stepfather, Tom, has been fooling around with her:
Tom: You see, I… get pretty foolish with her and I… well, you’ve seen her! There oughta be a law.
Harry: There is.
It actually shouldn’t be too surprising that Night Moves didn’t garner a lot of recognition on its original release as it probably takes a few viewings to fully appreciate this film. Most detective stories have always hinged on the hero solving the mystery, but in this one, the mystery practically solves itself. However, once you realize that the mechanics of the plot are secondary to the journey of the main character, the greatness of Night Moves really starts to shine through. It takes real guts to build an entire film around a protagonist who is slow to figure things out and actually winds up causing more damage through his actions than if he’d just left well enough alone. However, while watching the film, the viewer is often in the exact same position as Harry Moseby and is just as likely to guess wrong about everything that happens. In that sense, Night Moves does one of cinema’s greatest jobs at getting into the mindset of a frustrated character.