Night Moves January 13, 2022
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
here’s much to love about detective fiction: the spruced-up dialogue, board game-like plotting, lineup of tricky suspects, didn’t-see-it-coming finale. One of its preeminent (if subconscious) draws is the order it temporarily brings to a cruel and chaotic world. It can be reassuring to be in the presence of a determined gumshoe protagonist confronted with the unknown but manage to make sense of it while generally
keeping their cool. Arthur Penn’s third movie of the 1970s, Night Moves (1975), has a conceit of a piece with something you’d find in a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel; at first you think he’s going to give you more of the same. The plot is set into motion with the disappearance of a perpetually sloshed has-been B-movie star’s (Janet Ward) rebellious teenage daughter (Melanie Griffith); the former actress needs her back as soon as possible mostly because her sole source of income is the girl’s trust fund bequeathed to her by her father.
For a while you expect to eventually feel the kind of everything-is-fine-for-now satisfaction you’d get at the end of a standard detective story. But Penn, working off a screenplay from Alan Sharp, turns out to partially be interested in a kind of genre deglamorization with Night Moves. Aside from the sophisticated, ping-pong-like dialogue, Penn and Sharp place the movie squarely in scary, out-of-control real life where a lone wolf attempting to make right looks more foolish than encouragingly heroic. No answer feels very final. Night Moves gets you to a point where clarity is more dreaded than craved.
The lone wolf in Night Moves is Harry Moseby (a fantastic Gene Hackman), an L.A.-based former football star who transitioned into detective work a few years ago. We first meet him at a particularly vulnerable moment. He discovers that his wife, antique-store owner Ellen (Susan Clark), is having an affair. And he’s been wondering a lot lately — an extension of a midlife crisis, probably — if he does indeed love his job or if it’s a subliminal coping mechanism in freelance form. (He was abandoned by his parents as a kid, and has never found real closure to that lifelong mystery.)
Because that aforementioned missing-daughter case beckons just when Harry’s personal crises are folding into each other, he understandably devotes himself to it more than he would his other assignments as a kind of distraction, deliberately leaving home for a plane bound for Florida (that’s where the star’s daughter is rumored to be) right when his wife returns from work so that he doesn’t have to get into it with her.
The ensuing investigation involves shady Hollywood parasites, a love interest who may or may not be a bad guy on the down low (a wonderful Jennifer Warren), a lot of murders that may be accidental or staged for personal gain, thirsted-over insurance money, and a smuggling operation. You can for the most part figure out how everything fits together at the film’s end, though it wouldn’t be so easy to explain everything that cogently or linearly. Not that we really need to. What we take most notice of in Night Moves is how scuzzy and unsteady this underworld Harry’s walking into is, malleted in by the fact that he is the only man in the teenage girl he’s looking for’s life who thinks of her as a kid and not a sex object. She tells him that she thinks most people are shitty but that Harry is OK; even the stepfather with whom she turns out to be staying in Florida admits to getting “foolish” with her. He couldn’t control himself.
That general sliminess is one way Night Moves takes out the general seductiveness so often present in detective fiction. Another is how much time it allots to affirming that Harry, though competent and usually enviably unruffled in objectively anxious moments, is in a downward spiral of his own. He’s unsure about the fate of his marriage (Hackman and Clark make it feel lived-in, loving but cracking up); continuously shown that nothing about this case is quite what he’d initially thought it would be; and almost certain that his involvement may actually be bringing about more ruin than life-saving resolution.
The most interesting thing about Night Moves is not the details of its snarled-up narrative but the psychological and emotional complications that inform it — the consistent testing of Harry’s self-conception and attitude toward his work. In most detective fiction, what’s typically most compelling is arguably all the decorative stuff; you generally finish up eager to go on another adventure with its hero, on whom you feel you can rely. In Night Moves, what’s most compelling is not the story it tells per se but this detective who, at the end of the movie, concludes that the case hasn’t so much been solved as purely fallen on top of him. For his own sake, you hope he quits while he’s still ahead. A-