Sunday, May 03, 2009

Night Moves (1975)

Editor’s note: This week’s article is written by David N. Meyer. David is the author of Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music.He is the Film Editor and lead critic for the fine-arts monthly BROOKLYN RAIL. Film Noir fans know him as the writer of one of the coolest noir books: A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video


David N. Meyer

Even by the standards of gritty, mid-1970s, mid-budget, street-noir, Night Moves is ugly. It's shot like serial television; Director Arthur Penn possesses no discernable visual language. Most frames are functional, set up to deliver information. There's no noir shadowing - the whole bleak tale takes place in merciless blinding sunshine - no metaphorical frame composition, just basic prose presentation. The willfully cheap mid-'70s interiors feature that mid-'70s glaring overhead key light halo-ing everybody's relentlessly mid-'70s hair. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees' first jobs (Play Misty For Me, Dirty Harry) were for the one-take-and-print-it master, Clint Eastwood, who worked fast, thought literal and wouldn't know a visual metaphor if one shot at him from horseback. The model here seems to be the brutal realism of Surtees' prosaic frames on John Flynn's The Outfit (1973). Yet between The Outfit and Night Moves,Surtees DP'd the expressionist, black & white, Lenny. So the aggressive simplicity of his work on Night Moves apparently derived from money limitations. And/or directorial indifference.

Dotting the film like truffles in an omelet are three dynamic tracking shots and three mind-blowing, visually sophisticated stunt sequences. These suggest that with more money, maybe Penn would have made an expressive, more visually noir noir. Or maybe not. Only when he showcases violence does Penn's visual grammar rise above the pedestrian. Like the bullet-spattered finale of Bonnie & Clyde, the orgasmic blood-letting climactic stunt of Night Moves features a bravura that doesn't manifest anywhere else. Penn keeps the quotidian moments exactly that, and the fulcrum moments get the full heavenly choir. Night Moves lurches about, but the crucial moments linger. Despite the Starsky & Hutch framing, you cannot take your eyes off the screen. And that's because Gene Hackman is in pretty much every shot. And Gene Hackman is in pain.

Parsing Gene Hackman's singular gifts is a sucker's game. He just is. Hackman doesn't look, speak, dress or move like a movie star. He has little grace and sports the gnarliest mid-'70s hair/mustache combo in the history of gnarly mid-'70s hair/mustache combos. Yet he commands every moment. His character - Harry Moseby - a pro football player turned second-rate private eye, lives out his self-loathing the same way he lived out its only escape - through his body. The more Harry Moseby's lied to, or the more his feelings are hurt - and they're hurt easily -- the more slumped, crushed and childlike his posture becomes. When Moseby channels all his self-directed psychic violence outward - as he did on the football field - he's ecstatic. It's not Penn who communicates the depths of Harry's indifference to the outcome; it's Hackman. Harry doesn't care if he wins or loses, if he beats or is beaten. He wants only the release of the moment, regardless of consequences. He wants only to escape himself.

And so he immerses in the private eye life, following clues into the lives of others to avoid seeing himself. Harry takes control by remaining invisible. His dilemma is unique in noir. In The Conversation, Hackman's Harry Caul spied because without the Other, Harry Caul did not exist; he filled his empty shell with the conversations he stole. Harry Moseby suffers the opposite problem. Harry Moseby's interior existence is full to overflowing. And his exterior existence is turning to shit.

Even after he catches his wife fucking around (Susan Clark - who logged 150 episodes of Webster, God help her - rocking a seriously mid-'70s post-Jane Fonda shag mullet ), Harry has to endure a New Age lecture from her on all his poorly evolved aspects. The trouble is, she's right on every point. Her being in the wrong but absolutely right enrages him. Harry's all too human; his self-righteous anger drives away the connection that might save him. His wounded eyes ask: how dare his cheatin' wife give him such a drubbing? The simple answer: he deserves it.

Night Moves grapples with the most profound themes of noir: trust (betrayed), love (denied), greed (indulged), violence (solving/creating problems) and good old existential dread (by the truckload in Harry's case). The characters - no matter how extreme or contradictory their behavior -- remain complex, naturalist and recognizable. None are the walking plot-devices or living metaphors who appear in classical-period noir with quote marks around their heads (The Noble Negro, The Born Sucker, The Sidekick Doomed To Die, The Slut). Of course there's a femme fatale (Jennifer Warren in an unapologetic frenzy of neurotic self-knowledge, self-disgust and determination - did she radiate too much intelligence to become a star? ), and Harry, sap that he is, falls big. He doesn't realize that her trait he finds most annoying is exactly what makes him fall. Just like Harry, she's incapable of a straight answer.

This leads to a classic exchange:

She: Where were you when Kennedy got shot?
He: Which Kennedy?
She: Any Kennedy.
Harry pours out his sensitive memories, thinking she'll respond to the emotional openness he could never grant his wife. When he's done, believing a moment of true soul-connection has taken place, he queries hopefully: Why do you ask?
She: Oh, I dunno; it's the one question everybody knows the answer to.

Snap! The answer's a slap, and Harry retreats like an abused cur. For a noir hero groping after his own destruction with both hands, such treatment is catnip. Warren seduces Harry with a perfectly mid-'70s technique; first she confides her painful childhood memories, then she peels off her clothes as he watches. For a guy who craves intimacy and needs to spy, it's foolproof.

These delicious, poisonous moments - these cookies full of arsenic - come courtesy of Alan Sharp's venomous, entrapping, perfectly circular screenplay. It's hard not to regard him - rather than Penn - as the engine of Night Moves' enduring power. Sharp had an unbroken forty year career writing features and television. Of course he's responsible for a ton of crap: Damnation Alley's at the top of the pile. But prior to Night Moves, Sharpe wrote three eccentric, quixotic, bittersweet screenplays that could have been produced only in the 1970s: The Last Run (1971), a depressive road movie featuring George C. Scott as a double-crossed small-timer fleeing for his life; The Hired Hand (1971), Peter Fonda's dream-like, ultra-violent, psychedelic Western and Ulzana's Raid (1972), a Vietnam allegory revisionist Western (wait - is that redundant?) starring Burt Lancaster. All are marked by Sharpe's mordant Scottish wit and tough, spare language. Sharpe's not afraid to get his Harold Pinter on, as in this exchange between Harry and his wife, with whom he's come to a bruised rapprochement:

He: I didn't mean just you.
She: I know perfectly well what you didn't mean!

She begs him not to leave. But Harry, like all the abused children before him, refuses to face his own problems. He'd much rather solve someone else's, even if it, uh, kills him. So back he goes to the most accurate representation of the down and out Florida Keys ever set on film. Moseby was there before, rescuing the barely post-pubescent but definitely post-coital sixteen year old Melanie Griffith. Her incandescent energy, unaffected vulnerability and constant, guileless nudity suggest the career she might have had.

Penn seems indifferent to location, but he brings Harry to this grubby backwater for a reason. Harry's ping-ponging between two realities: the relatively polite social murder of LA and the straightforward primordial brutality of the swamp. Whether drowning someone in a dolphin pond, screwing a stranger while her boyfriend sleeps yards away or bashing a guy in the face using a ridged conch shell as brass knuckles, folks in the sticks exercise a lot less internal censorship. As dolphins cavort over a floating corpse, Harry's hosts unleash the Id.

Harry's not an Id dude, however. His rampant Superego makes him vulnerable to the machinations of those with excess will. It's not that the beachcombers pretend to be someone else; everyone's so straightforwardly corrupt they turn Harry neurotic (or, neurotic-er). He's deeply confused, and so are we. The sequence of narrative incident, that is, the plot, doesn't make a lot of sense, but so what? That's a hallmark of only the finest noir. (I have no idea what actually quote happens close quote in Out of the Past and it's one of my favorite pictures. And let's not even talk about Lady From Shanghai or The Maltese Falcon.) The casting of two down-and-outers who look a lot alike - one a villain, one an ally -- does not clarify several murky plot points.

But it does clarity the psychological reality. John Crawford, a B character actor with a lifetime of TV credits, incarnates a specific sea-side heartiness: slovenly, drunk, casual with no visible means of support, murderous. The history of his failure is written in his saggy body and Crawford plays him without vanity. Ditto Janet Ward as one of the worst mothers in all film noir - and that's saying something. Like Crawford, Ward's understated commitment to her selfish, soulless character speaks volumes about Penn's skill with actors. Several over-amped performances - James Woods and Kenneth Mars foremost - are counterbalanced by the realist nuances of Harris Yulin and Ed Binns. They portray semi-aware, world-weary, middle-aged men whom Sharpe's script pities but has no mercy for.

Would the film be improved if it were less low-rent? If Hackman got a better hairdresser or Penn a budget that permitted him to properly light a set? It might be more engrossing; the crude visuals push one away from the story. And nothing pushes harder than the unspeakable mid-'70s score from hack composer Michael Small. The story screams for Bernard Herrmann, but Small gives us wanna-be Lalo Schifrin, all watery Fender Rhodes and pointlessly sustained bass notes. It takes great concentration to stay with the portrayed emotions when the music swells. No other film would be more improved by re-scoring.
No other film.

What sustains fascination is that Hackman's performance and Sharpe's words are driven by the steady, remorseless pulse-beat of editor's Dede Allen's rhythm. Allen cut all of Penn's pictures. Here her relentless momentum brings to mind - of all things - the apocalyptic, unwavering drums in the Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice? Up top, the Boys sing happy fantasies; below the pulse of life, the march of mortality, the ticking tock of time. Fantasize all you like, the drum says, but when you're done, I'll be waiting. Each of Allen's metronomic edits say to Harry (and to us): one step at a time, boy, one step toward that grave at a time. Each cut metaphorasizes the incidents that brings Harry nearer to his reckoning.

Allen's rhythm sharpens the action, and raises the harsh awareness of consequence that fuels film noir. When evil rises from the ocean depths, and the dying sink reluctantly in a fog of rising bubbles, Harry discovers a problem that cannot be observed; it must be lived. From that, and from himself, there is no escape.



  1. I've wanted to see Night Moves again ever since I saw it on first release. Thanks for this fascinating take on it.

  2. You sure can write.

    Thanks for the wonderful, evocative review. Especially the swamp part. You nailed it.

  3. Stuck it in my Netflix queue. Thanks.

  4. This is a brutal assault on the sexuality of the pi. Former RAIDER linebacker who can't get lucky. Thats serious.
    Also, there is a GREAT Bobby Hutcherson cut on the sound track.

  5. Thanks for shedding some additional light on one of the lost 70's film noir classics.One of the most underated films and best performances by Gene Hackman,he simply nails this role.

  6. I actually like Michael Small's score. It's a bit melancholic and all-over-the-place, much like Hackman's character.

  7. Excellent review.

    Night Moves has a stripped down, Watergate disenchantment atmosphere that's humid, cheap, and rife with disillusionment; oh, how I love it so.

    A conch shell to your forehead for your over-the-top remarks about Michael Small, though. "No other film"? You've got to be kidding. He was an ideal composer for this kind of story his score is superb here. However, his 1980s work sounds like it was from a different composer, as if he were lost in that crass, reactionary decade. In that respect he was the Alan J. Pakula of composers. Pakula lost his creative direction after the '70s ended.

  8. you are so very harsh on this film, and it's a classic of the confused, 1970's post-noir era. It's like you're in love with the film but you revile it because you lack respect for yourself for thinking it good.

    for shame! :)

  9. This would make for a great double bill with Antonioni's early Masterpiece, 'Il Grido', with a similar flawed male central character.
    'Night Moves' is barely a notch below 'Chinatown', but it gets better with age
    Hackman's finest performance: its perfection


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