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Summertime Blues: 'Night Moves'

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Because it’s summer and summer isn’t always happy days, beach frolics and picnics in the park. It's also, often, claustrophobic sunlight and heat, free time to overthink your life (or no free time to think at all), annoying, chipper people playing volleyball or worse, frisbee and my favorite, existential meltdown. But before you think I'm getting way too dramatic here, trust that summer can roll along like (and metaphorically speaking) one of my favorite movies, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves. (Which I'm revisiting here from a post last year -- it's been a shitty month...this movie's perfect for shitty months.)

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Though most '70s film fans regard this picture as a classic of the era, it’s a movie that oddly, took far too long for rediscovery (and a DVD release -- finally three years ago, but I’m still keeping my worn VHS copy, for sentimental reasons). But this is a bit curious. The picture was directed by Arthur Penn, the auteur behind a movie that arguably kick-started the changing face of cinema--Bonnie and Clyde. It features both a teenage Melanie Griffith (in all her wild child glory) and a very young James Woods. And it stars my beloved Gene Hackman in one of his greatest, most poignant and naturally moody performances. It's also a brilliant movie, a complex, thoughtful and powerfully melancholic neo-noir.
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Like Bill L. Norton's masterful Cisco Pike, Jerry Schatzberg's moving Scarecrow and Michael Ritchie's great, tough Prime Cut (the latter two also featuring Hackman) Night Moves (1975) is a distinctly '70s picture, a movie that showcases exactly why so many consider that era a golden period of filmmaking. Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a private detective and former pro football player whose glory days are behind him (one of the picture's most touching moments is simply catching Harry beam while walking into a football stadium). His marriage isn't working out, his wife (Susan Clark) is having an affair (she also likes going to Eric Rohmer films, something Harry famously says is like “watching paint dry.”), and he seems somewhat lost. Hackman plays this melancholia with subtlety and intelligence and his existential dread hangs over the picture with an almost bittersweet pessimism.

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Hired by a washed up Hollywood glamour-puss (Janet Ward) to find her teenage daughter (the nubile Griffith), Moseby takes the job and tracks down the girl who is crashing with her stepfather (John Crawford) in the Florida Keys. The unusual relationship sees the rebellious daughter in an extremely permissive and disturbingly close situation with her father whose mistress (Jennifer Warren) seems to coolly take it in some kind of stride. Harry falls for the woman, who's unusual herself, with an intelligence and seen-it-all veneer and, yet, interestingly sunny good looks that catches the viewer somewhat off guard. She’s a blonde healthy woman who looks like she smokes about two packs a day—she's got angst, but keeps it in cynical check. In short, she's a mysterious female character one rarely experiences in movies. She's truly interesting and off.
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But as the plot thickens (and boy does it thicken) we realize just how interesting and off everyone and everything is, how very real to life they are. And with this, everyone and everything is not surprisingly, frustratingly impossible to crack. A revelation does not necessarily lead to closure because a revelation isn't always what it seems in the first place. And then there's Moseby's own mysteries which are really, a lot more interesting and complex. This doggedness of not tying up its mysteries in one tidy bow makes Penn's Night Moves all the more meaningful, its pessimism (and amidst all the oppressive sunlight) all the more complicated. Cruising in this beautiful "paradise" Hackman's boat doesn't crash, it goes round and round (if you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about), literally making the picture's moral ambiguities open ended and curiously, painfully elegant.

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And again, that boat. In any kind of existential crisis, I often think of Gene Hackman and that damn boat. I don't know if it helps me, but it's nice to relate to, even if that boat only exists in one's mind.

Comments

chris

I need to revisit this, although I've never watched the whole thing. For me, Hackman's like Duvall, watchable in just about anything.

COOP

Gene Hackman is about the only actor who gets me to watch any movie he is in (except maybe that one he did with Dan Ackroyd.)

Wellington Sludge

Saw this movie a few years ago on 16mm (at a Noir film club a friend runs once a month) and was surprised that I hadn't heard of it before. Very 70s, with characters that just kept surprising you with each new development. Hackman is great, and I never knew Melanie was ever so young!

Cheers for the memories (from a chilly Down Under!)

Terry

'Night Moves' is a creepy, understated classic. It approaches its characters with a refreshing ambiguity that you just don't see much of in cinema after, oh, 'Star Wars' came along. '70s neo-noirs are something special... this, and 'The Driver' (not as good a film but still a great ride down some dark alleyways in great period pantsuits) are among some of the more intriguing films from those years. Thanks for the great article, Kim!

daves

it's kizmit that you published a post about 'night moves' just now... i'd ordered the dvd and just watched it for the first time last night. my finally getting around to picking up this movie is due to finally figuring out who harry moseby is... from jermey ritchie's great harry moseby confidential site, though i remember this movie coming out when i was a little kid. i saw clips on a canadian tv show about movies called 'claire olsen's movie beat' or something like that. from this show, i remember a panicky melanie griffith (though i had no idea who she was at the time), gene hackman, and a helluva lot of water. it looked cool and interesting... and over my head at the time. watching the movie last night, i wondered why it'd taken me so long to see it. along with 'two lane black top' this is one of my great recent discoveries from that most excellent era of filmmaking --- the 70's.

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