Thursday, November 3, 2016

Gene Hackman Looks for Meaning in "Night Moves" (Me, too)

There are certain movies I feel compelled to watch periodically--even though I've seen them and know they will disappoint me again. One such film is Michael Crichton's Looker, which I've reviewed for this blog, and another is Arthur Penn's Night Moves. Both films have impressive pedigrees, with Crichton and Albert Finney responsible for the first and Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman teaming up for the second. Certainly, Night Moves is the more critically acclaimed of the duo--although let me stress that you won't find me among its admirers.

Dig the moustache?
Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a former Oakland Raiders football player who has become a private investigator. Because Night Moves was made in the 1970s, there must be a psychological reason for why he chose such an unusual profession. Sure enough, it turns out that Moseby's father abandoned him as a youth and that he tracked down Dad as an adult. Harry now finds meaning in finding people (more on that later), so he becomes a detective.

A young Melanie Griffith.
Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a former "B" movie actress, hires Harry to find her 16-year-old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), who has been missing for two weeks. Harry doesn't like Arlene, who won't win any parenting awards, but he takes the job for $125 a day and expenses. His investigation leads to a movie shoot in Mexico and eventually to Delly's stepfather's in the Florida Keys. He finds Delly, but also a lot of messed-up people and, yes, even murder.

Meanwhile, Harry's seemingly-grounded wife (Susan Clark) asks if he wants to see a revival of My Night at Maud's. Harry declines by quipping: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." This is the film's most famous quote...which is probably meaningful in some psychological way. (Incidentally, I like Rohmer.) Harry changes his mind later and shows up at the movie theater to discover his wife getting into a car with an unknown man. He follows them and later confirms that his wife is having an affair. Yes, this private detective isn't observant enough to note that his own marriage is on the rocks. I think this is intended to be psychologically meaningful.

James Woods is effective in a small role.
I believe there's a solid premise buried somewhere within Night Moves and that, plus Hackman's performance, may be what compels me to return occasionally to this film. However, I always end up flustered by the half-baked ideas. There are references to Kennedy and some hand-held footage of a car crash that may not be an accident (ah, an analogy to the Zapruder footage). Harry plays chess and discusses a knight move in a famous game (ah, "knight move" and "night move"). It turns out that Harry lied to his wife about finding his father. (I did pick up on the reference to football player Alex Karras, who was co-star's Susan Clark's husband in real life.)

Night Moves intentionally posts some key questions and then ends without answering them. That's how life is and I respect that approach. I don't mind a challenging film either--heck, I watched Last Year at Marienbad and count myself among the millions baffled by it. However, Night Moves is simply unsatisfying on too many levels to make it a meaningful viewing experience. Please note that I'm in the minority among my film critic brethren. Roger Ebert thought it was a new kind of film noir about "an old-fashioned private eye who says and does all the expected things while surrounded by a plot he completely fails to understand."

As for me, I'm glad I wrote this review. Ten years from now, when I'm intrigued to watch Night Moves again, I can re-read this post and then opt for a Rohmer movie instead.


  1. Watched it yesterday. What a murky mess! Only highlight was seeing James Woods so young.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of this film. I saw it on first release and liked it a lot. I remember that the story was confusing, but somehow that didn't bother me. It seemed like more of a mood piece with the detecting part secondary. My main disappointment was that Jennifer Warren didn't progress to bigger stardom; I thought she was terrific in the film. Anyway, your review has encouraged me to request the NIGHT MOVES DVD from the local library to see if my original reaction to the film is still the same.

    1. Gary, you're right about it being a mood piece vs. a straight mystery. That was often the case in the early 1970s--THE DROWNING POOL is another example.

  3. Thanks for posting your review; you bring up some interesting points. I like the film, though I acknlowedge it has some flaws. I think its one of Hackman's best performances of the period, and Jennifer Warren is fantastic, as Gary points out above, she should have been a major star. I also revisit the movie occasionally (and have written about it recently for my own blog) but I've found my appreciation of it has actually grown over the years.