Arthur Penn’s detective movie is one of the best ever in the genre, one that rewards repeat viewings particularly well. Gumshoe Harry Moseby compartmentalizes his marriage, his job, his past and the greedy Hollywood has-beens he meets, not realizing that everything is interconnected, and fully capable of assembling a world-class conspiracy. Gene Hackman tops a sterling cast in the film that introduced most of us to Melanie Griffith.
Warner Archive Collection
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date August 15, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Kenneth Mars, Janet Ward, James Woods, Anthony Costello.
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Production Designer: George Jenkins
Film Editor: Dede Allen
Original Music: Michael Small
Written by Alan Sharp
Produced by Robert M. Sherman
Directed by Arthur Penn
Night Moves is a superb detective thriller that plays with profound ideas without getting its fingers burned. It’s one of those ’70s pictures that gets better the more one sees it. Little indebted to what has come before, 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 skips over the glamor angle. This view of Hollywood isn’t flattering and the thriller action has a melancholic air, like a post-Watergate Key Largo.
Independent investigator Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) takes a job retrieving Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith), a runaway from the rotten Beverly Hills home life provided by her ex-starlet mother Arlene Grastner (Janet Ward). Moseby becomes distracted emotionally when he catches his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) in an affair. He successfully tracks Delly to a shady charter plane service in the Florida Keys, run by Delly’s ex-stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford). Harry is also attracted to Paula (Jennifer Warren), an independent woman with a shady past, and foolishly thinks that what he sees in Florida is how things really are. Then he misses some crucial clues. . .
Harry Moseby knows he’s in an irrelevant line of work; his own wife wants him to quit, to do anything but snoop-work 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.
In this picture California and Florida are taken as places where losers go to die . . . or cook up illegal schemes. Harry is confronted by an array of Hollywood old-timers who are also avoiding facing up to faded dreams. The most disturbing is Delly’s mother, the vulgar alcoholic Arlene. She still boasts of her coup of ‘grabbing off a big one’ twenty years before when she married a wealthy producer. Arlene’s second 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 is already an accomplished seductress. Almost every man she knows has been her lover, except perhaps Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns), a friend of the family still actively employed as a stunt director. Harry gets along well with the interesting Joey. But Delly is running with Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), an insufferable stud of a stunt pilot of whom Joey says: “He’d fuck a woodpile on the chance there was a snake in it.” Yet 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. Most disturbingly, Delly has been playing around with her stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford), a paunchy ex-movie pilot possibly tangled up in the smuggling game.
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. This is where the potentially pretentious content sneaks in. Harry thinks he can solve other people’s problems yet he can’t ‘solve’ the obvious problems in his own life. Catching his wife Ellen sleeping with another man (Harris Yulin), he forces an 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 at communication that he takes as criticism. Ellen is mystified when Harry tells her he once spent weeks tracking down his estranged father, only to purposely avoid contact once he found the little old man. Harry has this naïve belief that getting at the truth cures all ills. 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 a man who doesn’t try to hit on her, and reaches her in a way that her hateful mother and selfish statutory rapists cannot. But Harry foolishly lets another woman get under his skin. Paula flatters him with Humphrey Bogart accents while pretending to be a ‘fallen woman’ in need of tender loving care. Paula can match Harry quip for quip and, like the others, is continually asking him to stop being so damn serious about this detective business. Harry never realizes what is easy for us to guess – that Paula might herself be deep into the corruption. She’s looking for the 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 a trick. It should be ‘knight moves.’ Chess fan Harry shows Paula a historic 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 the rest of his life. Harry’s true nature shows when he admits that he feels guilty about the famous chess 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.” Harry can be made nostalgic over old defeats and ‘the hopelessness of it all,’ not realizing that much of what he sees is a smokescreen. He figures out the puzzle pieces but is consistently one step too late in putting them all together.
Alan Sharp’s terrific screenplay reminds us of better hardboiled detective fiction, the kind unafraid to let people be truly unpleasant. It lays out one of the best thriller-traps ever, one that will hit viewers like a ton of bricks provided some reviewer doesn’t spoil it. The smart dialogue contains a number of class-A zingers. Harry: “All Harry knows is that if you call him Harry one more time he’s going to make you eat that cat.”) Another quotable quip has entered the language intact. Harry confesses that for him, “Watching an Eric Rohmer film is like watching paint dry.” It isn’t a cynical act. He hates introspection even in movies, and won’t put an obligatory ‘eye graphic’ on his business card. Harry keeps approaching his problems like a football player, going straight for the goal when he should be looking more carefully to the left and right.
Night Moves’ forward momentum dovetails into a creepy conclusion that develops into a personal dilemma. We admire Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but we can identify with Harry Moseby’s plight — simple distractions prevent him from saving the day. It all comes together out on a lonely stretch of calm Gulf water, with just a boat, a scuba diver, an airplane and a machine gun. Harry learns the truth and the mystery is solved, but it all ends in personal and professional disaster.
Arthur Penn directs Night Moves with a breezy looseness that becomes extra-sharp in the tense scenes. A macabre underwater diving scene is frightening in a way 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 mysterious killing must be 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, on Sunset Boulevard and at 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, trying to protect herself. At the time of filming Griffith was borderline underage, which makes us uncomfortable; these were the years when the lines of sexual conduct and Hollywood license were so blurred, that a self-confident movie director thought he could get away with seducing a 13-year-old actress wanna-be. Three years before, Griffith’s mother Tippi Hedren had allowed her to appear with Don Johnson in The Harrad Experiment, an exploitative movie about a New Age co-ed college where sex is encouraged.
Veteran actors Edward Binns, Tom Crawford and Kenneth Mars use bluff and macho posing to variously con our hero. James Woods acquits 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.
In just two scenes actress Janet Ward nails the tragic illusions of boozy floozy Arlene Grastner, an ex-starlet bimbo with an advanced case of nymphomania. Because she has money, Arlene can get away with things that would cause any other mother to lose custody of Delly. It’s a demanding part, and one that could easily collapse into parody. Ms. Ward made pictures infrequently, but her brief appearances in two Sidney Lumet films are gold. She’s the panicked Mrs. Grady in Fail-Safe who screams to convince her pilot husband to abort his atom bombing run on Moscow. In Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes she’s an upscale Manhattan wife brutalized during a robbery.
Jennifer Warren’s Paula is a unique creation, a truly complicated woman fulfilling the destiny of a number of film noir sirens that desert their scruples in exchange for an elusive security. For Paula, staying with a crook requires no more reasoning than “he’s the kind that gets nicer as he gets drunk.” Arthur Penn gives us the lowdown on Paula with old-fashioned expressive camera angles that intimate that she has something to hide — she’s repeatedly seen peering through a screen window, from behind blowing laundry and various partial screens.
Alan Sharp is the screenwriter of the gems Ulzana’s Raid and Rob Roy. Savant long ago acquired the well-written screenplay for Night Moves. 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. It provides Harry with yet another personal failure to regret, and a solid motivation to avoid the police and solve the crime on his own.
The bottom line is that lovers of mysteries, detective fiction and film noir can’t go wrong with this adult thriller.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Night Moves reproduces cameraman Bruce Surtees’ interpretation of a gritty look for the ’70s. I saw the film twice theatrically when new, and can vouch that daytime scenes were always a bit washed out, while the nighttime images have a crystal sharpness. Don’t expect a parade of dazzling images, even remastered in HD: when Harry snoops around a midnight Malibu beach house or a Key West dock, Surtees doesn’t use extra light to cut through the (moral) murk. But the precise camerawork shows us exactly what Arthur Penn wants us to see. The conclusion on the water delivers some startling, nearly abstract images. Harry finally sees through to the truth, as if the glass-bottomed boat has become an X-Ray machine (see top, large image).
Michael Small’s modest jazz score uses a recurring vibraphone (?) riff. The DVD mix seemed a bit unbalanced, but the uncompressed track here recovers a soundscape where the dialogue can all be clearly heard..
The extras more or less show that Warners were at a loss as how to sell Night Moves, which came out a few years before the retro- noir and neo-noir craze kicked in. The breezy old-fashioned featurette The Day of the Director is eager to tell us that Arthur Penn is a 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 box office of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye we can forgive the studio for not announcing Night Moves as a classic detective caper. But the lack of critical enthusiasm that greeted the film on release is difficult to account for – Arthur Penn didn’t get half the credit he deserved. 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, as when silverware grinding in a garbage disposal becomes a background for a domestic argument. But I think it’s one of the best detective movies ever.
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Moves Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: featurette, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson