Judge Paul Corupe knows a hard-boiled slice of neo-noir when he sees it; this film might just be the stuff that dreams are made of.
"All Harry knows is that if you call him Harry one more time, he's going to make you eat that cat!"—Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman)
In the wake of political corruption and unprecedented levels of urban crime, diverse 1970s detective thrillers like Chinatown, The Conversation, The Long Goodbye, The Stone Killer, Klute, and Dirty Harry all pointed to an exciting neo-noir revival that was poised to reshape contemporary cinema. With each film boasting a very different take on the defining hardboiled films of the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood found itself in a brief but intense love affair with cynical detectives, cops and private eyes who were not only in search of violent criminals, but also themselves.
One of the most unique artifacts to emerge from this gritty, skeptical era is Arthur Penn's challenging and entertaining film Night Moves: a smart, well-written mystery that explodes audience expectations and the detective genre itself by questioning the very foundations and assumptions that have defined noir since its inception. Boasting another exceptional performance from Hackman and a lean and mean script that pulls its punches in all the right places, Night Moves is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s-a fascinating, existential gumshoe thriller.
Facts of the Case
Ex-football star Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) ekes out a modest living as a private detective amongst the bright lights of Beverly Hills. Just as Harry is contacted by former Hollywood actress Arlene Grastner (Janet Ward, Fail-Safe) to find her runaway sexpot stepdaughter Delly (Melanie Griffith, Working Girl), he suddenly discovers that his wife Ellen (Susan Clark, Porky's), has been cheating on him. Frustrated and confused, Harry begins investigating Delly's life, and falls in with a strange milieu of Hollywood bit players and has-beens, including hotshot stuntman Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello, The Molly Maguires) and studio mechanic Quentin (James Woods, Videodrome). Eventually the trail leads him to Key West, where Delly has been living with her ex-stepfather Tom (John Crawford, The Poseidon Adventure), who operates a charter flight service. While trying to convince Delly to come home, Harry begins to fall for Tom's enigmatic girlfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren, Slap Shot). Delly finally agrees to go back to L.A just as Paula begins to reveal her secrets, but unbeknownst to Harry, this case is far from closed.
Although it functions perfectly well as a standard detective story, Night Moves is in fact a neat little character-driven film noir deconstruction. The title of the film is a reference to a chess problem that Harry outlines to Paula in the film, in which a past champion was caught off-guard and checkmated by three "knight moves"—sequential movements of the opposing player's knight. The analogy, of course, is quite apt, since like the hapless chess champ, the continually perplexed Harry never really sees anything coming until it's too late.
Not that Harry is a bad detective, but even he is convinced that he's going through some set of predetermined motions copied from a Humphrey Bogart film. There are several references to classic private eye potboilers throughout Night Moves—at one point, a character asks if Harry is going to punch him out "like Sam Spade." Penn's bitter tale is pretty far removed from the standard Hollywood playbook, though, and instead of laying down a logical trail of clues for the dogged detective to piece together, he has Harry try to solve each mystery simply by insinuating himself into each new situation until it somehow works out. With this slightly unorthodox technique, Harry is forever overlooking the obvious—as a private detective who is often hired to check up on cheating wives, he doesn't notice that his own wife is unfaithful—but even more disturbing, Harry clearly has no idea on how to actually follow through with a solution once he's done the information-gathering legwork.
This is true in all aspects of Harry's life. Night Moves begins just as Harry has reached an important crossroads in his career and his marriage. His wife Ellen constantly tries to convince him to give up his practice and sign on with a professional agency, but he initially refuses, and the situation blows up when he catches her canoodling with her lover, Marty (Harris Yulin, Scarface). Harry confronts the pair, despite lacking any tangible resolutions; he seems to think it's enough that they've been caught in the act. Later, he reveals to Ellen that he has finally tracked down his absentee father after many years, only to stare at him from across a park, unable to approach the old man. Not surprisingly, Marty tells Harry that by "solving" these cases that he's really trying to solve the problems in his life—ironic, since he proves pretty ineffectual at both tasks throughout the film.
Eventually, the moral implications of actually "solving" a case become almost too much to bear on Harry, and he is forced to re-evaluate his professional life as a whole. On returning Delly home, she immediately begins fighting with her stepmother, and Harry realizes that the elder Grastner only wanted her stepdaughter back to satisfy an inheritance clause from her rich studio mogul husband—no one is truly happy with the situation. Harry has done his job and picked up his check, but has he done the "right" thing for anyone? Once Harry concludes his work on the case, he finds that he's still almost drowning in loose ends, and that he's become the ultimate outsider-to his job, the mystery at hand, and even his personal life.
Directed by Arthur Penn, Night Moves eschews the dark alleys and sinister neon-glazed Hollywood nightlife for bright and beautiful location work. Belying the film's murky undertones, Penn keeps the tone of the film extremely light, as the action effortlessly hops between Florida and Beverly Hills. There are no real stop-and-reflect-moments or perceivable roadblocks to Harry's investigation, yet with his progression mirroring the knight's two steps forward and one to the side, the mystery remains almost entirely inscrutable to both the PI and the viewer until the film's action-packed final twist.
In terms of casting, Night Moves provides another exceptional role for Hackman, who is masterful as the self-doubting Harry Moseby. Made just a few years after his defining roles as conflicted detectives in The French Connection and The Conversation, this film gives Hackman a chance to play someone who not only doesn't have all the answers, but also is fairly unsure on how to get them. Penn also assembled a simply excellent supporting cast for his film, including relative newcomers James Woods and Melanie Griffith (in her breakout role, no less), but it's Jennifer Warren who ultimately landed the best role as the slightly haggard Paula, a woman whose essential place in the mystery and the film never really becomes crystal clear.
Night Moves makes its DVD debut from Warner with a fairly nice technical presentation. The transfer is bold and sharp, especially the film's night scenes, although colors sometimes seems slightly washed out in that '70s cinema way. Sound isn't particularly dynamic, but it gets the job done, clearly delivering music and dialogue. The only real disappointment comes in the extras department. This release would have been a great candidate for an in-depth, scholarly commentary track to really get into the film's intricacies, but all we get here are the obligatory trailer and a period featurette called "Day of the Director," which, aside from some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Penn and Hackman, is standard studio puffery.
It's not often that I recommend outright blind buys of DVDs, but given the low cost and relative obscurity of this title, there's little chance that anyone will be disappointed with this certified diamond in the rough. Penn's neo-noir doesn't quite reach the levels of The French Connection or The Conversation, but it is certainly well within their class, and well worth a viewing for fans of gritty American cinema. You may not see how Night Moves cleverly departs from traditional mystery thrillers until it's too late, but once it does, this relatively little known film delivers an absolutely devastating slice of blunt, hardboiled melodrama.
Innocent, guilty…really, what's the point?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Day of the Director" Featurette
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