The notion that nothing really makes any sense isn’t a bad way to start off the year. Maybe realizing that can free you, keep you from the crippling fear that you’re not going to accomplish a damn thing by the time December comes around again. Sure, it’s a little self-defeating when you come right down to it, but what isn’t? I could just as easily talk about why I haven’t been posting anything in the past few months but no point in going down that road, at least not right now. A few years back I started writing a piece about Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES which is a longtime favorite of mine, put it aside, never backed it up and then lost it when my last computer died. C'est la vie. I know what that piece was going to be about and I actually always thought it was coming along pretty well. But it’s not what I’m writing about right now because, of course, things change. On the other hand, it’s the exact same thing I’m writing about deep down. You think things change in this town but maybe they don’t. Nothing is ever clear enough to know for sure.
Just as L.A. private investigator Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) discovers that his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is having an affair he takes on a case to find teenage runaway Delly Crastner (Melanie Griffith). His path leads from Delly’s alcoholic mother (Janet Ward) to movie stuntmen Delly’s been involved with all the way out to Key West on the trail of her where he encounters Delly’s stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford) and his mysterious ladyfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren) who know all too well what Delly’s been up to. But what seems to be cut and dried in Harry’s investigation turns out to have much more going on than he first realizes.
The smooth jazz of Michael Small’s main theme kicks in at the start and right away it’s hard for me not to get sucked into NIGHT MOVES, to feel that mid-70s L.A. vibe, the washed-out, laid-back nature of it all but while the film is almost compulsively rewatchable—I’ve seen it multiple times just in theaters by now—it never becomes easy. It never wants to become easy even down to how the narrative seems to deliberately drift in nowheresville for a long stretch until we find out that it isn’t, of course it isn’t, that important events were happening right in front of us only neither we nor the lead character ever noticed. That murkiness never entirely goes away after repeated viewings along with the films undeniable portrayal of the bitter feel that the world is passing you by, or maybe has passed you by already. NIGHT MOVES might be best known these days for introducing the legendary declaration that Eric Rohmer’s films are “like watching paint dry” to the world and it’s an existential film about a character who hates existential films so much that he can’t even see that he’s in one, let alone the truth about the case he’s allowed himself to get close to. Actually the script is filled with lines like that one, each of them fraught with meaning and symbolism. They seem designed to aid the film in a quest to become the most 70s of all 70s films with its combination of character study, angst and conspiracy. As soon as Melanie Griffith’s Delly meets Harry she blurts out that she figures he likes things to stay the way they are—maybe she’s already been hanging out with way too many 40 year-olds.
Delly’s right about him of course and Harry certainly doesn’t want to give up his practice like his wife wants him to but I suspect for him ‘things the way they are’ was actually a long time ago. Or maybe never, indicated by his preoccupation with a famous chess match from long ago he’s always recreating on the tin board he carries around that went bad. Harry figures the player who lost regrets it and so does he, even though he wasn’t born yet. He’s trying to recreate a past he wasn’t around for, trying to prevent a tragedy that he never could have, so it’s no surprise that one of the film’s other most memorable exchanges involves discussing his memory of several Kennedys. And if there’s a more defining line for what we think of as that filmic decade (pre-’77, anyway) than Harry’s declaration that nobody’s winning the football game he’s watching on TV, “One side’s just losing slower than the other,” I can’t think of it. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is taut and piercing in that way with a brilliantly wavy structure that keeps you off kilter as much as possible while the direction by Arthur Penn (who Hackman worked for previously in BONNIE AND CLYDE and later in TARGET) lends the utmost clarity to that murkiness, always aware of what’s in the frame that you’re not supposed to notice, never wanting to admit to itself that there’s not much hope at all. BONNIE AND CLYDE might be what Penn will always be remembered for but NIGHT MOVES, still hidden away from the mainstream, stings more each time I watch it. It knows the way things are but wishes otherwise.
With locations in Malibu, up over Sunset and out in the valley NIGHT MOVES feels like a key Los Angeles film of the period (that Rohmer film is playing at the Magnolia Theater in Burbank, which was long gone by the time I showed up) and of course it’s an appropriate conundrum that no more than half the running time is even set there. For me, it almost makes sense how much of the rest of it is set down in Key West, a place I’ve never been to and don’t expect that to change any time soon so it just makes me more wary--Florida being a mirror of LA, an unfamiliar one for both Harry and myself--continuing to search for clues in every scene as we spend all that presumed downtime spent drinking with Paula at Tom Iverson’s. NIGHT MOVES would certainly work as the more serious half of a double bill with THE LONG GOODBYE (or, to get very recent with it, INHERENT VICE) and the various films in question certainly share the same decade as well as a protagonist’s own relationship to that decade as he drifts through the narrative, powerless to affect what’s really going on. Harry Moseby wants to be Philip Marlowe (or maybe Sam Spade, the name thrown at him by Harris Yulin’s Marty Heller who is sleeping with Harry’s wife) but he can’t get out of whatever inner monologue is going on inside his head that would allow him to notice the truth, any truth. He doesn’t see what the case really is that’s happening around him is about--everyone in the movie apparently knows each other and Harry doesn’t even seem to realize this much. “He didn’t see it,” Harry says when he talks about that long ago chess player as if recounting his own greatest fear, not knowing it’s already come true.
The immediate context of the film is the 70s hangover of the 60s, the depression, the feeling that there’s no way out—even Harry watching film dailies of an accidental death in a car offers a certain Zabruder frisson to it. Everyone in the film, the teenage Delly included, feels old already and they always seem to have some booze close by. Harry’s wife even shouts at him that he’s ignoring their problems “so you can pretend you’re solving something,” as if putting off some unknown inevitable. Not at all one for self-introspection, Harry couldn’t even follow through on a key mystery of his own life when he sought out some answers as he reveals at one point. Chuckling at the bio rundown of someone’s past, he reacts violently when someone does the same to him--the rundown of his own life isn’t a place he wants to visit. He can do the job, he can tracks down Delly, but he never thinks about what comes next. “You’re asking the wrong questions,” he’s told at a key point but his mindset doesn’t allow him to even consider what the right ones might be. Marty Heller, even with his willingness to see Rohmer films and casual affair with Harry’s wife, seems the most together person in the movie even with his limp, maybe because he has a cat. On the other hand, maybe that’s Philip Marlowe’s cat from THE LONG GOODBYE and Heller found him while he was making his way out to find Marlowe at Roger Wade’s house further down the beach. But now Marty fucking Heller has the cat, not to mention Harry’s wife. That doesn’t do us any good at all.
More than anything else, NIGHT MOVES is about loss which is what so much of noir is about anyway. Irretrievable loss that may or may not be pinned on you but it doesn’t matter in the end. The loss of Harry’s youth, his football past, his failing marriage, the case that’s swirling away around him. Harry loses those things because he doesn’t see what’s going on right outside of frame. Sometimes he doesn’t even see what’s right in front of him. He expects things to be straightforward. “You mean you’re gonna solve the case and find the booty?” the more-or-less femme fatale says to him near the end knowing that it isn’t that simple, also knowing that she’ll never convince him otherwise. I talk about what NIGHT MOVES means, at least to me, but I’m ignoring just how good a film it really is in the moment, how expert Arthur Penn is in expressing these themes right down to the blunt effectiveness of the climax. The McGuffin that barely even figures in to the finale that takes place mostly on a boat appropriately called the Point of View (maybe a little too obvious, but it still gets the point across) is discarded as meaningless to us as it always was, certain questions are finally answered but of course those only lead to more questions. That imagery of the final shots, a reminder of how you regret what you weren’t around for leading to screwing up what you are there for, leading to more regret and you couldn’t have changed anyway. You’re trapped in a never ending circle.
Not long ago someone I know who worships Gene Hackman mentioned they still hadn’t seen this film. Seriously, this aggression must not stand. NIGHT MOVES doesn’t just contain Hackman’s strongest work it features one of his most purely vulnerable performances as if he understood the worldview of Harry Moseby almost more than he wanted to admit. It’s a great piece of work, forceful and vulnerable, tough and always human. Jennifer Warren who, if I’m being honest, is one of the key reasons I’m continually drawn back to the film maybe best known today for playing Paul Newman’s ex-wife in SLAP SHOT here makes Paula one of the great noir creations. She takes someone who we can’t pin down right away partly thanks to all that hair she’s hiding at first but everything about her combined, her attitude, her looks, her drinking, her crappy car and making her truly enigmatic as well as fascinatingly memorable. I always want Harry to stick around Key West just a little longer with her but I guess that just makes me watch the entire film once again. “They really get to you, don’t they,” Harry Moseby observes at one point. Yeah. Along with strong work by Susan Clark as Moseby’s wife (when I think of the film I always half-remember this as Joanna Cassidy for some reason), John Crawford, Harris Yulin, Edward Binns and Janet Ward there’s the young Melanie Griffith who in this early role is extremely strong as Delly, nailing just how enticing she is along with her own fragility (some brief nudity by Griffith here—maybe I shouldn’t be asking how old she was) and a young James Woods is just great as an ex of Delly’s named Quentin, making me wonder if it was a favorite performance of another Quentin once upon a time.
The fatalistic nature of NIGHT MOVES needs to be washed down with a few shots of scotch and yet the film always sends a charge through me, a reminder of how alive a film from this era could be along with how well it plays now. “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re 16, but don’t worry. When you get to be 40…it isn’t any better,” Harry tells Delly when he attempts to console her. That’s certainly still true. So there are periods like these days where NIGHT MOVES just fits right in with my mood and as much as I watch it I’m still not quite able to know what to make of what happens. I mean, I pretty much know. I just don’t want to admit it. After all, NIGHT MOVES is about how you avoid the truth even when it’s being told right to your face. It’s about how you can never get anything to work because, well, you are who you are and you’re going to screw it up no matter what. It’s also one of the best films made by the people involved and, I imagine, still one of the most underappreciated films of the 70s a time when none of these films had happy endings. This thing came out in the summer, for crying out loud, released by Warner Bros. It opened the same week as NASHVILLE and, if the dates are correct, less than a month after FRENCH CONNECTION II (which has sort of a happy ending, but just barely after what Popeye Doyle’s been through). It also opened just days before the release of JAWS, a film that coincidentally also has a climax set out on the water featuring a FRENCH CONNECTION cast member but one with a considerably more upbeat result. Sometimes I watch JAWS endlessly but right now, during the first weeks of this new year, NIGHT MOVES is up there at the top of my DVD pile, lingering, daring me to watch it again. You never find out all the answers. You’re just left going in circles. What happens after the white-out to end credits is up to you. At the very least, I’d like to think that’s the case even if I know the truth. But I’m trying.