I first saw the Gene Hackman starring, Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directed film Night Moves many years ago, perhaps somewhere in the 1980’s. I thought it was ok and presented an interesting take on the classic pulp private detective, which I will get into in a moment, but not all that much else lingered in my mind.
Over on a bulletin board I got into a discussion about the film and, as I was flying (It seems that’s about the only time I have the ”free” time to actually watch something), I decided to give the movie another go.
I’m glad I did.
Here’s the movie’s trailer:
What I remembered about Night Moves was that Gene Hackman’s detective character, Harry Moseby, was something of a failure as a detective. I recalled that, while he was a very decent man and he tried very hard to do what was right, he missed clues, both subtle and obvious. He wasn’t in the class of a, say, Inspector Clouseau and the film does not ridicule his faults, but this winds up being an interesting reversal of one of the more standard cliches of the pulp detective fiction genre.
If you’ve followed these classic detective works, there are certain things many of the detectives in the works have. Women are attracted to them and they know how to use their fists and/or weapons. They are often very sardonic/sarcastic but insightful. Regarding the later, they often see through situations and other characters with an almost god-like understanding.
Harry Moseby is an intelligent man who tries his best to do what’s right but, in the course of the movie, we find he’s misses things that us regular mere mortals would likely also miss. This is the central theme of Night Moves, though its presentation is done in sometimes very subtle ways. I suppose I’m spoiling things a bit by saying the case he’s involved in does eventually get ”solved”, but if one thinks about it Moseby’s presence may have made things far worse for everyone concerned rather than any better.
Moseby’s lack of awareness is presented early on when (MILD SPOILERS) Moseby quite by accident (again, showing his general lack of awareness) find out his wife is cheating on him. The trailer above gives this away but its only the first instance where Moseby is unaware of what goes on around him. Later in the film and with another character, Moseby shows off a chess moves (it too is shown briefly in the trailer above) involving a ”knight” that was played in a professional match back in the 1920’s (Knight moves, so to speak!). Moseby notes how the chess player missed a certain move and how he likely regretted it his whole life.
That, in a nutshell, is the movie’s way of telling you Moseby is in for a similar circumstance.
Having said all the above, what delighted me about the film was the realization -something I didn’t known way back when- was that the plot of Night Moves hews very closely to both Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and, especially in the movie’s wrap up, to Dashiel Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon.
Now normally I wouldn’t be too happy about a movie taking so much from other works, but in this case they did it in mostly clever ways. Moseby is hired, as in The Big Sleep, by wealthy Arelene Iverson (as opposed to wealthy General Sternwood), an older woman who was once a minor figure in Hollywood’s golden age, who says her very wild step daughter, Delly Grastner (a very young an alluring Melanie Griffin) is missing (In The Big Sleep, Detective Phillip Marlowe is hired to check in on the very wild Carmen Sternwood). Arlene is the embodiment of the golden age of film’s darker side, a bitter alcoholic who is all too wise to the way women are used and abused in this ”magic” town.
Moseby gets to work and, in short order, figures out where Delly is hiding and eventually goes across the country and to Key West (another homage, I suppose, to a film like Key Largo) to get and retrieve her. There he meets Paula (Jennifer Warren, who is simply fantastic), another world weary woman who’s seen too much and done too much. There is an attraction between the still hurt Moseby, who has yet to deal with his wife’s infidelity. In Paula we have a good approximation to The Big Sleep’s more world weary Vivan Rutledge, Carmen Sternwood’s big sister, who was played so fantastically by Lauren Bacall in the movie version of The Big Sleep.
After a shocking find (I won’t go into more spoilers), Moseby takes Delly home and to her -we find- hellish life.
While his case is resolved, the story is only beginning at this point and to reveal much more would be criminal (pun intended).
Suffice to say that things aren’t entirely what they seem and Moseby’s just starting to realize how entangled many of the characters are, and how this leads to multiple murders.
Just as this movie presented characters who were close approximation to The Big Sleep’s General Sternwood, Carmen Sternwood, and Vivan Rutledge, we have James Woods (in a very early role) playing Quentin, a surly mechanic, who is clearly meant to echo The Big Sleep’s Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur. Further to that, we also have a close approximation to the character of Rusty Regan from The Big Sleep as well. And when the movie reaches its climax, we have certain fascinating elements of The Maltese Falcon appear in the movie’s climax.
And, if you look closely enough, Harry Moseby’s character in Night Moves seems to be something of an approximation and expansion of Sam Spade’s doomed partner, Miles Archer, from The Maltese Falcon. In that novel, Archer’s wife has an affair with Spade and winds up losing his life in the case that Spade eventually takes up. Was Archer, like Moseby, someone who didn’t see all the angles? Regardless, its fun to see Sam Spade’s name evoked in the above trailer.
Moving on from the echoes to other works, I have to especially note the terrific acting by Gene Hackman. There’s a reason he’s a legend in the movie industry and I have to say this may be one of his all time great roles. Having said that I would also reiterate Jennifer Warren was also terrific and its a shame she doesn’t seem to be very well known today.
Night Moves is an easy recommendation, especially to fans of the pulpy detective novels of yesteryear. The movie cleverly uses many plot details and ideas and presents something new and fresh yet which delightfully echoes the best of what came before.
So I highly recommend the film.
There is something that needs to be brought up, something that probably relates more to the era in which this film was made and which, IMHO, is something that detracts from the overall work.
Night Moves is a movie that, I felt, fell under the ”male gaze” problem other works have. The three main female characters presented in the film all have nude scenes and, frankly, it felt like director Arthur Penn was doing this to spice things up when it wasn’t really needed (there’s plenty of steam between Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe and Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge without the need to show her nude!).
Worse, Melanie Griffith’s Delly Grastner is presented in the film as under age (I’m not certain what the actress’ age was when filming, but my understanding is that she too was …gulp… underage at the time). She’s a wild child, a girl (not a woman yet) who sleeps around and does try to seduce Moseby as she seems to think this is her function in life. At one point in the film, a character talking to him notes about Delly that ”there ought to be a law” and Moseby says ”There is.”
That’s all good and well but why then present several scenes where Ms. Griffith is nude? It seems like the movie wants to eat their cake and have it to and, truthfully, that sort of stuff should make today’s viewers very uncomfortable.
Regardless, that’s perhaps the only blemish on an otherwise very well done film.