1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Night Moves March 31, 2018
he main appeal of a detective movie, depending on your mood, either has to do with style or with an engrossing storyline, sometimes both if luck’s on the side of its director. I figure most audiences tend to think of private dicks existing in two distinct realms: one originally constructed by Raymond Chandler, all boozy and overflowing with acerbic dialogue, beguiling women, and gelid pulp style, and one drawn by Agatha Christie, all shifty eyes and plot twists buried underneath the clothes and personae of glamorous figures. The former caters to one’s accidental habit of viscerally reacting; the latter feeds a need for intellectual stimulation, and knows how
satisfying it can be when a cerebral knot eventually gets untangled.
Comparable, though, is how these two influential detective cosmoses seem to exist worlds away from our own. Anything written by Chandler is so syntaxically overdressed, anything could come to work as a main feature in a hokey Detective Story issue. And anything written by Christie is so stylized and structurally methodical, we couldn’t imagine any of her characters scurrying about a world where they aren’t acting as well-dressed stepping stones in a manicured whodunit.
Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) functions as a detective movie that initially seems as though it could be likened to the works of Chandler and Christie: It features a wearied gumshoe brought into a case that is, formulaically, not at all what it seems. But different this time is that neither the style or even really story act as respective, preeminent draws. Here, character is key, and the question is not how our protagonist is going to navigate the focal case but why he’s taken it on in the first place. What moved him to get into the dangerous, thankless racket that is detective work? What is he running away from?
A lot, it seems. The aforementioned protagonist, Harry (Gene Hackman), is a retired football player, living in a seedy version of Los Angeles, and going through a rough patch in his marriage. His old career has left his body tired and achy; his place of living has made simply existing slightly more risky; his wife (Susan Clark), whom we decide he’s been married to for a decade or more, is having an affair. We gather that the freelance detective work he’s been pursuing for the last couple years has been his way of coping with his bummer of a midlife – to add excitement and meaning to a reality which increasingly seems to be heading toward ruin.
We suppose that Harry’s day-to-day life is probably monotonous and likely uneventful. But fortunately we get to know him just as his professional life is in the midst of something of an upturn. Somewhat out of the blue, Harry’s hired by the aging cheesecake model and small-time actress Arlene (Janet Ward) to track down her missing 16-year-old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith in her film debut), who, thanks to a trust fund, acts as her sole source of income.
The story sprouts from there, leading Harry to shadowy figures galore and eventually Delly herself. But my purposeful ambiguity here has less to do with a need to keep the thrills of the plot intact as much as I can and more to do with the fact that story in general seems so blasé in Night Moves. King is the wanting to unspool Harry and those dancing around him. We’re more interested in getting to know the individuals who populate this movie than we are in getting to a tidy and satisfying conclusion. (The storyline, like in most private dick-centric movies, is pretty convoluted anyway, so that’s a good thing.) Alan Sharp’s screenplay is riddled with compelling characters – even the smallest of walk-ons make an impression. Featured, too, is one of Hackman’s best performances. His everyman persona ups our wanting to figure him out. We’re so sympathetic to his plight, after all.
The movie additionally bears a lot of terrific supporting performances. Ward is a slurry riot as the former tigress who’d be at home making trouble in any one of Chandler’s novels. Griffith is a memorable minx who turns out to be much more susceptible than we’d originally thought. The earthy Jennifer Warren, as a love interest who may or may not be crooked, suits the movie’s conviction that even the most seemingly trustworthy of figures might not be afraid of betrayal in the long run.
What’s most interesting about Night Moves, however, is how well it manages to subvert the expectations and conventions of the detective movie. It has all the ingredients necessary to work over us in the same way as the works of the previously mentioned authors. Yet we’re left feeling existential and low by the time its 99 minutes come to a close. Portrayed here are characters who know that life itself is inherently pointless, and so, to them, the only way to provide it with necessary zest is by getting ahead through amoral means. Maybe men like Harry can put a temporary stop to that. But he, like them, is also searching. B+