' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Night Moves (1975)

Friday, March 06, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Night Moves (1975)

Throughout “Night Moves” Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), private eye, is told by others of his almost pathological need to “solve” the case. The case involves a young girl, Delly (Melanie Griffith), who has gone missing. Harry is hired by Arlene (Janet Ward), her mother, a fading (faded) Hollywood starlet to find the gone girl. He does a little digging and, in not much time at all, tracks her to a fairly foregone location – that is, her stepfather’s Oceanside ramshackle stead in the Florida Keys. It’s such a simple job that there can only be twists and turns and looming turmoil, and there is, of course, just as there is also the marriage of Harry’s that is on the rocks. “The movie,” wrote the late great Roger Ebert, “is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” That was referring to “The Big Sleep” which was about Bogey’s Philip Marlowe, not Bogey’s Sam Spade, which is the P.I. to whom Harry Moseby is jokingly compared, but the sentiment half-describes “Night Moves”. It is overly concerned with the investigational process as much as the results, but it is concerned with results too; it’s simply that the “results” have nothing to do with anything being “solved”.


This film, directed by Arthur Penn, is one that gets and appreciates a classic film reference. Early on Harry visits his wife at her office and she wonders if he might like to join her and her boss that evening for a showing of an Eric Rohmer film. “I saw Rohmer once.” Harry replies. “It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Buuuuuuurn. And that’s because he sees himself as a Sam Spade, a tough-talking, no-nonsense-taking hard-boiled gumshoe in a black & white noir made on the cheap, where issues are resolved not with philosophical discussions but with brawls and guns.

Mosbey’s backstory involves his position as a one-time NFL player with the Oakland Raiders (which means that because the film is set in 1975 he must have played at least a season or two with the rough & tumble 70’s incarnation of that swashbuckling franchise which no doubt indicates why he’s so darn good in fight), and I think that’s crucial. The character on paper and in the demeanor crafted so ably by Hackman comes across very much like an ex-professional athlete forced to the sideline and, consequently, his own version of twiddling his thumbs. He’s often seen playing chess by himself. It’s tossing cards in a hat as a one man private investigating firm. He needs a way to matter.


His marriage apparently stopped mattering at some point, or at least being a way to actively engage in life. He only seems enlivened by the thought of his wife (Susan Clark) when he can tail her, discover the man with whom she’s been cheating, and knock on the man’s door, not really even to confront him, since he doesn’t seem that angry, but have a conversation. The man tries to get him to have that conversation with, you know, his wife, but Harry is nonplussed. She’s basically trying to goad him into a reaction, like Justine did with Vincent in “Heat”, yet Harry’s reaction is just to bury himself in his case and take off for Florida. In another film, a lesser film, when Harry starts flirting with Paula (Jennifer Warren) down in the Sunshine State, and eventually sleeping with her, we might assume the marital problems were merely an excuse to forgive his adulterous transgressions. Except we already kind of think he’s a (what-have-ya). He and Susan have already crossed the rubicon.

All this marks “Night Moves” less as a traditional thriller than a character study – “My Night At Maud’s” as an American thriller. After all, Rohmer’s film, the one Harry dismisses, revolves around the idea of making choices that apply meaning to life, for if you don’t make the proper choices to apply that meaning then life is merely an existential wasteland. He chooses to get involved in this case of the missing girl and to push that case to and then past its limits to apply meaning to the life he feels himself incrementally drifting away from. Alas, by the conclusion of “Night Moves” he’s more or less wound up in one of those art films he so despises, utterly adrift, all alone, forced into an answerless predicament, a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life watching paint dry.

2 comments:

The Boy in the Back Row said...

Just for a second, didn't you think, "Whoa, he's literally going to make Harris Yulin eat that cat"?

Nick Prigge said...

Ha! Nice call. Yes. I think I did.