Night Moves is a superb movie, one of those 70s pictures that gets better the more one sees it. The true ultimate statement of the detective thriller genre, it goes right to the heart of the problem raised by the words, 'solve the mystery.' Most everyone appreciated the previous year's Chinatown but Alan Sharp's contemporary story has no glamorous touches. Its view of Hollywood isn't flattering and its thriller action has a melancholic air, like a post-Watergate Key Largo.
Harry Moseby knows he's in an irrelevant line of work; his own wife wants him to quit, to do anything but snoop around for people he doesn't respect. He's a fairly macho ex- pro football star in a dead-end existence. Everyone else seems to be doing well, even Nick (Kenneth Mars) a detective at a big agency who keeps offering him work.
The setting is Los Angeles and Key West, Florida, where Harry meets an array of Hollywood old-timers who are also avoiding facing up to faded dreams. The vulgar Arlene Grastner is an alcoholic quickly approaching 60 and still boasting of her coup of 'grabbing off a big one' when she quit her pitiful acting career to marry a producer twenty years before. Her ex-husband and friends are all ex- stunt players and second unit directors, restless men also approaching old age without nest eggs to fall back on.
At the center of these Hollywood jackals is Delly, a predatory nymph who at sixteen has already seduced every man in sight including her own stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford), a paunchy ex-movie pilot probably tangled up in the smuggling game. She also runs with Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) a stunt director and 'friend of the family,' and an insufferable stud of a stunt pilot, Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello) of whom Joey says: "He'd fuck a woodpile on the chance there was a snake in it." Another unhappy ex-lover is Quentin (a young James Woods), a stunt mechanic who behaves as if he'd like to see Delly dead, but keeps turning up in her life like a bad penny.
Moseby falls in with this fascinating group of characters with the mistaken notion that he's getting a fair picture of what's going on. He's forever asking questions, but as Paula chides, they're the wrong questions. Harry thinks he can provide the solution to other people's problems, when he can't 'solve' the obvious problems in his own life. He catches his wife Ellen sleeping with another man (Harris Yulin), forces a big emotional showdown, and then realizes he has nothing to say to her. Ellen continually asks Harry to question what he's doing, an honest attempt for understanding that he takes as criticism. Ellen is mystified when Harry tells her he once spent weeks tracking down his estranged father, only to purposely not make contact once he's found the little old man. Harry has this naive belief that getting at the truth cures all ills, while the women in his life keep trying to tell him that they already know the truth, and he should be doing something else.
Harry wisely keeps an arm's length away from Delly. He earns her respect as the only man who never tried to hit on her, and reaches her in a way that her hateful mother and selfish lovers cannot. But he foolishly lets another woman in the case get under his skin. Paula flatters him with Humphrey Bogart accents while pretending to be a 'fallen woman' in need of tender loving care. She can match Harry quip for quip and, like the others, is continually asking him to stop being so damn serious about this solving crimes business. Harry never realizes what is easy for us to guess - Paula is herself deep into the corruption, just looking for a momentary payday that will allow her to keep moving, just like the sharks that must swim to live.
Night Moves is about switching appearances; even the title is an evasion. It should be 'knight moves' - Chess fan Harry shows Paula a fateful chess showdown involving "three little knight moves" that spelled doom for a famous player. But the player never saw it coming, and felt guilty about it ever since. Harry's true nature shows when he admits that he feels guilty about the players' defeat, even though he wasn't even born when it happened. Paula picks up on this, and relates Harry's sense of chivalric regret to the Kennedy assassination: "Which Kennedy?" "Any Kennedy."
Alan Sharp's terrific screenplay is one of the best thriller-traps ever laid out and one that will hit viewers like a ton of bricks provided some DVD reviewer doesn't spoil it. The smart hardboiled dialogue contains a number of great zingers (Harry: "All Harry knows is that if you call him Harry one more time he's going to make you eat that cat") and at least one saying that's entered the language intact -- Harry confesses that for him, "Watching an Eric Rohmer film is like watching paint dry." The line isn't just a cynical joke. Harry hates introspection even in movies. He even admits he doesn't have the standard 'eye graphic' on his business card. He keeps addressing his problems like a football player, going straight for the goal when he should be peering into himself.
Night Moves has plenty of action, all of it dovetailing into a creepy conclusion that develops into a personal dilemma. Harry figures out the puzzle pieces but is consistently one step too late in putting them all together. We admire Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but we can indentify with Harry Moseby - life's mysteries never resolve by tying themselves up in neat bows.
Arthur Penn directs Night Moves with a breezy looseness that becomes extra-sharp in the tense scenes. Some underwater diving scenes are macabre and frightening in ways that Jaws never was; a glass-bottomed boat provides a distracting window for one's sexual fantasies, and then surprises us with horrific revelations. At least one killing must be mysteriously pieced together from the evidence of film cameras on a movie set, in a creepy pre-echo of the Twilight Zone case. Contrasting locations in the San Fernando Valley, Malibu, Sunset Boulevard and a pro football game are all captured perfectly, making the film a time capsule of the Los Angeles scene.
Gene Hackman chalks up another memorable performance with his 70s haircut and bushy sideburns. Melanie Griffith is directed to form a perfect portrait of a sexually liberated teenager with a frightened kid inside, hoping to get out. Edward Binns, Tom Crawford and Kenneth Mars use bluff and macho posing to variously con our hero. James Woods aquits himself well, and even Dennis Dugan from The Rockford Files TV show has a memorable bit. Creepy Anthony Costello makes a perfect grinning jerk with an annoying laugh, only to be turned into an aquatic ringer for our old friend Mrs. Bates. Keep on smiling, Marty.
Jennifer Warren's Paula is a unique creation, a truly complicated woman fulfilling the destiny of a number of film noir sirens who talk about throwing away their scruples in exchange for elusive hopes of security. For Paula, staying with a crooked man requires no more reasoning than "he's the kind that gets nicer as he gets drunk."
Savant acquired a screenplay for Night Moves long ago and marveled at how well Alan Sharp (the writer of gems like Ulzana's Raid and Rob Roy, among others) did his work. The finished film follows the script faithfully, deleting only two scenes. The first is a prologue that shows Harry's latest humiliating job, watching the house of a man who wants proof that a neighbor is purposely targeting his front lawn when walking his dog. Warner Bros. possibly found that opening a bit too sordid. The second cut scene takes place just before Harry rushes back to Key West, when he plays back the voice message from Delly that he didn't bother to listen to a few days before. I don't know why that scene was dropped, as it would have been yet another personal failure for Harry to regret - and would have provided a solid motivation for Harry to avoid the police and solve the crime on his own.
Warners' DVD of Night Moves is a most welcome addition to anyone's disc collection. The enhanced transfer accurately reproduces the film's slightly grainy and washed-out daytime scenes, that turn to crystal sharpness at night. Michael Small's modest jazz score with its recurring vibraphone (?) riff is nicely presented, although on my system the music track seemed to crowd the dialogue a bit too closely - perhaps this is the original theatrical mix.
The Day of the Director is a breezy old-fashioned promo film about Arthur Penn, noted genius with actors, yet concentrates mostly on action scenes one wants to avoid before seeing the film the first time. The excellent trailer also focuses almost exclusively on action scenes.
After the floppo boxoffice of The Long Goodbye we can forgive the studio for not selling Night Moves as a detective caper. The lack of critical enthusiasm that greeted the film on release is difficult to account for. Perhaps audiences were sick of seedy films about low-key corruption, or maybe they responded negatively to the awful print campaign with its faux-Bergman tag line: "Maybe he would find the girl ... Maybe he would find himself." Night Moves does flirt with pretension once or twice (the silverware in the garbage disposal as a background to a domestic argument) but in actuality it's one of the deepest detective movies ever made.
Yet another 2005 DVD genre release that will probably end up as one of Savant's favorites.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Moves rates: