Night Moves (1975)


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.

19 responses to “Night Moves (1975)

  1. This neo-noir really hits the spot–for me. I’m always puzzled when people don’t like it. I think it’s very underrated. While it doesn’t blow up the genre confines and then reassemble them with satiric glee like The Long Goodbye, it does deconstruct the conventions of classic noir. The Harry character thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is. Great review.

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  2. I saw this one decades ago, before I became a fan of film noir, so I might need to check it out again for its ‘neo-noir’ aspects. Plus, I remember nothing about it, and I like Gene Hackman in anything he’s in (but I haven’t seen ‘Welcome to Mooseport’ yet!), so either way it should be a worthwhile watch.

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    • Hackman is one of my favorite actors! I’ve missed some of his movies, though. I haven’t seen Mooseport either (not my thing but because it’s his last film, I feel I need to watch it).

      Anyhow, I just looked at his filmography, and I’ve seen everything except Mooseport, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Replacements, Company Business, Full Moon in Blue Water, Split Decisions and some early movies like Doctors’ Wives and A Covenant with Death.

      Favorite performances: The French Connection, Scarecrow, The Conversation, Night Moves, Mississippi Burning and Unforgiven. But he can do no wrong, in my eyes. He even managed to give a good performance in Superman IV.

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      • Superman 2 and No Way Out were the first two films with Gene Hackman that I saw in the cinema. My favourite Hackman performances are Bonnie & Clyde, The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure, Young Frankenstein, Unforgiven, Crimson Tide, Extreme Measures, Absolute Power and especially The Chamber. I recall a rumour that he was going to star as a corrupt Star Fleet admiral in the Star Trek film series. That would have been exciting.

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      • Yeah, I’m not sure about watching Mooseport…I’ve heard it’s bad, and was apparently the film that prompted him to retire, but I’m curious to see WHY it prompted him to retire.

        And my favorite Hackman films: The French Connection, Mississippi Burning, Hoosiers, Unforgiven, and of course, his short bit in Young Frankenstein.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Scarecrow was a fab picture. It got quite a build up at the time. Hackman and Pacino together! not quite, a bit Of Mice and Men but beautifully observed. Hard to explain how big a sensation the likes of Hackman, Marvin, Bronson all breaking through at the same time, not by any stretch of the imagination good looking guys like the previous generation of Newman, Beatty, McQueen.

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