Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Night Moves

With a poster like that, how can you not want to watch this movie?  Right off the bat, you know this movie has a plane, a naked chick swimming (possibly through the air), and Gene Hackman's famous locks, flowing in the wind.  Actually, I watched Night Moves because I'm a fan of Gene Hackman, especially when he plays intelligent characters; he's a private eye in this movie, so this sounded right up my alley.

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a retired football player turned private eye.  He doesn't handle big, important cases, or even cases that leave him with a moderately clean feeling, but he likes the idea of his work.  His devotion to the job doesn't win him any fans at home; his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), is having an affair.  Of course, Harry finds out --- he's an investigator, after all --- and he's devastated.  As luck would have it, Harry can postpone the dreaded "we need to talk" moment with his wife by taking a case for an over-the-hill Hollywood sexpot.  She wants Harry to track down her runaway daughter, the unfortunately named Delly (Melanie Griffith), and is so concerned over her daughter's well-being that she flirts mercilessly with Harry.  Harry does some digging, and learns that the sixteen year-old Delly is a notorious tramp.  She ran away from home with a Hollywood mechanic, Quentin (James Woods), then ran into the pelvic thrust of a douchebag stunt driver, and then ran to her stepfather's (John Crawford) home in Florida.  Just because he found the girl doesn't mean that Harry knows what he's doing.  The longer he spends on this case, the less straightforward it seems, proving that even a smart man like Harry can still be very, very wrong.
Yeah, that's kind of how I felt when the movie ended, too.

Night Moves was far from a critical or financial success upon its 1975 release, but the seventies were a strange time in the film industry, filled with new film styles and abrupt endings.  Whatever the reasons for its initial failure, Night Moves has grown more appreciated over time, thanks largely to the great and subtle performance of Gene Hackman.  I don't even know how to give his performance a just summary; he's smart, but easily fooled; he's physically tough, but emotionally tender; he's very reserved at times, but brash at others.  The best thing about Hackman's performance is how believable it is.  The rest of the cast is good, too.  Jennifer Warren is surprisingly good as a person of (romantic) interest in the case; this kind of complex supporting role is a shoe-in nowadays for an Oscar nomination.  I'm not quite sure how believable her attraction to the men in this film is, but people were often ugly in the seventies.
It's easy to be infatuated with Gene Hackman when his face is obscured by a tree trunk.
Perhaps the most shocking performance for me was that of a then seventeen year-old Melanie Griffith as the nudity-loving (yes, at seventeen) Delly.  It's not just that Griffith is almost unrecognizable as a teen, but she did a very good job in her frequently naked role. 
Where did all the swollen face lumps go?
The rest of the cast was solid, but not particularly noteworthy.  Susan Clark was fine as Harry's wife and James Woods was okay in a small (and also almost unrecognizable) part, where he snarled ineffectively a few times.

The script by Alan Sharp and the direction by Arthur Penn do the rest of the work.  And work, they do!  This is a phenomenal script.  It is rare to have a script filled with clever (and non-zinger) lines, but this one is very nuanced in how it advances the plot and gives compelling glimpses into the minds of the characters.  I look forward to watching this movie a second time; I have the feeling that many of the lines will have new meanings, now that I have seen the ending.  Arthur Penn did a great job working with this script and the actors.  It is rare for a movie to be enjoyable and confusing at the same time, but Penn manages to get multi-layered line readings from the entire cast, filled with shades of grey, and he has the guts to provide a conclusion that asks a question.
Whatever happens here, I doubt that it's happy.
I did have one issue with the script and direction, though.  What was with the romances in this movie?  I have no problem with unattractive or moderately attractive men in movies having beautiful romantic interests, but this movie pushes my suspension of disbelief a little too much.

When this movie finished, I wasn't particularly impressed.  Sure, I acknowledged the talent of in-his-prime Hackman, but I was left a little cold by the ending.  It's confusing, to put it mildly.  A funny thing happened as I started to summarize the plot in my head, though; I started to reflect on the many instances where Harry was wrong, even when I (as a viewer) assumed he would be right.  That got me thinking about other parts of the movie, and I began to appreciate the non-sequitors in the dialogue and the depth they gave the plot.  Can I explain the whys of this story?  Absolutely not, but I can accurately describe the plot.  It's easy to understand what happened, but understanding the why is what makes this one special.  I'm going to give this a moderate rating now, but I think I'll bump it up whenever I decide to watch it again.  It's a grower that I look forward to discussing at length with friends.


  1. hey brian. welcome to lamb. nice review. i saw the movie recently and agree with how good hackman is but i can;t say the movie left me feeling much towards it but apathy. and a little confused as to why rachel griffiths was naked all the time and why they went diving in the middle of the night (other than to accidentally find what they did of course)

  2. I definitely understand an apathetic reaction; that was my initial response, too. It grew on me, though. Hackman seems so smart in this movie, and yet he's wrong so many times --- it's like following Sherlock Holmes on his worst day ever. The more I reflect on Night Moves, the more I like the idea of a smart character being consistently outsmarted.

    I'm not sure exactly why I like that, but I do. Maybe because the last scene was a surprise to me, or maybe because the movie never attempts to pretend that it all makes sense to Hackman. I'm not sure. I love detective fiction, and this is a great example of how different a detective story can be if the detective isn't omniscient for a change.

  3. oh yeh the bumbling detective who has no idea whats happening was quite a popular thing in the 70's. i think it was Altman and The Long Goodbye that led the way in that instance.

  4. Hmm...I like The Long Goodbye in book form, maybe I should give the movie a shot. Elliot Gould, though...I don't know if I've ever seen him in a non-comedic role. Sounds like a bad fit for a detective.

  5. the chandler books are great absolutely but this 70's version isn't exactly faithful. it's a wonderful take on the hard boiled detective. a look at what they had become by this period in american history. gould is a cool idiosyncratic shambling wisecracking private eye who isn't really sure just what is going on for the entire movie. he's perfectly cast for what altman wanted. i kinda love the movie.but thats probably obvious by now.