Gumshoe Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman, The Conversation) is hired by an ex-Hollywood starlet (Janet Ward, The Anderson Tapes) to find her teenage daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith, Working Girl), who has run away. Moseby finds the young woman rather quickly, but soon learns that things aren’t as they seem.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Do you ask these questions because you wanna know the answer, or is it just something you think a detective should do?”
Night Moves is one of the most provocative thrillers I’ve seen. It was directed by genre deconstructionist par excellence Arthur Penn, who is responsible for the subversive crime drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the absurdist comedy Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and the revisionist western Little Big Man (1970). On this occasion, Penn uses Night Moves to reflect on the conventions of the film noir genre while reconfiguring it.
Detective stories usually stick to a specific formula: a private eye goes on a wild goose chase packed with colorful characters and endless red herrings before solving the crime. Not this movie. While it does manage to evoke old noir movies, Night Moves is a shifty tale that is a lot more demanding than any other movie of its kind.
Alan Sharp’s (The Osterman Weekend) serpentine screenplay puts viewers to work. We are made to feel as though we are playing a virtual reality PC game. We see everything through the eyes of the protagonist. As a matter of fact, the audience gets the last clue of the puzzle at the exact moment the gumshoe receives it, and like our anti-hero, we only have seconds to process it (confession: I cheated, I froze the image).
Most interesting is how Night Moves suggests, an idea I unreservedly endorse, that life outcomes are invariably linked to our ability to choose freely. Director Penn clearly rejects the old concept of the noir hero as a helpless victim at the mercy of fate. Although the private detective serendipitously stumbles upon clues, it is what he does or doesn’t do with the information he acquires that determines what happens next.
Another reason I liked the movie has to do with the film’s look. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me) is able to create a great sense of foreboding. There are many scenes that look just plain weird. Sometimes I had trouble understanding what exactly I was supposed to get out of a scene. But I liked how the movie forces the viewer to pay close attention to the action on the screen.
They did a great job casting the movie. Gene Hackman is, of course, absolutely brilliant as troubled gumshoe Harry Moseby. It’s one of his most interesting performances. Hackman is particularly good at conveying the detective’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies as he embarks on a Quixotic quest that’s both unnerving and revealing.
I was also impressed with Melanie Griffith, who plays the teen Hackman is looking for. I do have to say that she has a completely pointless frontal nude scene. Apparently, director Penn waited until she turned eighteen to shoot the sequence. I have no idea why Penn went through all the trouble because the brief scene adds nothing to the movie. Also, with Jennifer Warren (Slap Shot) and Susan Clark (Coogan’s Bluff) as Hackman’s dissatisfied wife. James Woods (Against All Odds) has a small role as Griffith’s friend.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Night Moves is a captivating and enigmatic neo-noir. It requires multiple viewings, though. One viewing to learn the storyline and characters. The second time to absorb the technique and ideas. It’s a truly fascinating movie that I’m sure fans of detective stories will love. It would make a great double-feature with Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller Blowup. Highly recommended! Color, 99 minutes, Rated R.