I first saw director Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) back in the early 80s. It had been a sleepless night for me & the film was airing in one of those late night timeslots where it was interrupted every ten or twelve minutes by those awful used car dealer & mattress outlet commercials. It probably wasn’t the best way to see this complex, noir-ish thriller, but since I was a fan of star Gene Hackman, I thought I’d give the movie a try. I found the movie interesting & well-acted, but lack of sleep & the constant commercial interruptions probably contributed to me filing the title away to see again at some point. Fast forward to 2016, and I got to watch the film with no commercials, as part of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to Hackman (one of my favorite actors) in September. I now think it’s one of Hackman’s best performances, and one of the more under-rated films of the 1970s.
Hackman stars as Harry Moseby, a former football player who's working as a low end private investigator working in Los Angeles. His wife Ellen (well played by Susan Clark) keeps pestering him to join a large investigative agency so he can make more money & take on better paying work, but he likes doing things on his own. Harry & Ellen’s relationship has hit a crossroads, and he discovers Ellen is having an affair. At a friend’s suggestion, he takes on a new case: locating the missing child of Arlene Iverson, a faded movie star. Her teenage daughter, Delly, has run off & was last seen on a film set in New Mexico. It seems Delly (Melanie Griffith, in an early role) is something of a wild child, and has been flirting & toying with several men on the film set, including mechanic Quentin & stunt pilot Marv Ellman. By the time Harry gets there, she’s already left.
Harry finds her in the Florida Keys. She’s staying with her stepfather Tom, but Delly doesn’t want to go back. She thinks her mother is only interested in her trust fund, which Arlene will inherit if anything happens to Delly. Harry stays overnight, and tries to convince Delly to return. Meanwhile, he forms a bond & shares an attraction with Paula, a woman who works for Tom. While on a boat ride with Harry & Paula, Delly goes swimming & finds the wreckage of a small plane, with the pilot’s body inside. Paula marks the spot with a buoy & the trio returns to shore. A visibly upset Delly asks Harry to take her home. He brings her back to Los Angeles, but a short time later, he hears Delly has been killed in an accident while filming a stunt on a movie set. That’s the springboard for what will become the movie’s final third. Harry, who’s been trying to salvage his relationship with Ellen, is drawn back into the case. Lies are uncovered, secrets are revealed, and in classic film noir style, things do not end well for everyone.
Night Moves is a dark, almost bleak movie, with characters like Harry & Paula stuck in places they don’t want to be, but powerless to change. In many ways, Harry is the opposite of the typical film noir hero, as he isn’t the tough guy who punches his way through things & people to solve the mystery. He hasn’t figured out the truth of the case, or his own truth. Hackman is superb in the role, subtly conveying Harry’s anguish under the surface. There’s a fine supporting cast of familiar faces, including Harris Yulin, John Crawford, Edward Binns, a young James Woods as Quentin, and the amazing Jennifer Warren, who is excellent as Paula. Arthur Penn’s solid direction, Alan Sharp’s well-honed script & cinematographer Bruce Surtees moody color palette all contribute to the movies’s success. The film is the second of three collaborations between director Penn & star Hackman, the other two being 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and 1985’s Target. Night Moves is not a typical thriller, but it is a rewarding viewing experience, and it couldn’t have been made in any more appropriate decade than the 1970s. It’s truly worth watching. The film is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s (somewhat misleading) trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdlLWziBggM.a .