Complementing outright throwbacks such as Chinatown (1974), several ’70s thrillers updated classic film-noir style with modern characters, settings, and themes. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is among the best of these current-day noirs, featuring a small-time detective who has seen too much misery to muster any real hope for the human species. Nonetheless, like all the best noir heroes, he strives to do something good as a way of compensating for all the bad in the world, and thus ironically dooms not only himself but also the very people he’s trying to protect. Penn, whose erratic feature career peaked with a run of counterculture-themed pictures spanning from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to this film, was at his best orchestrating subtle interactions between complicated characters, and he does a terrific job in Night Moves of meshing bitter tonalities.
A seething Gene Hackman stars as low-rent L.A. investigator Harry Moseby. An amiable idealist whose principles alienate him from the compromisers who surround him, Harry is married to Ellen (Susan Clark), who wants him to shutter his one-man agency and work for a big firm. Preferring to steer his own course, Harry focuses on his next case, which involves tracking down teen runaway Delly (Melanie Griffith), the daughter of a blowsy widow (Janet Ward) who, a lifetime ago, was a promiscuous Hollywood starlet. During downtime between investigative chores, Harry discovers that Ellen is cheating on him, so he’s only too happy to follow a lead on Delly’s whereabouts to Florida, a continent away from his troubled marriage. In the sweaty Florida Keys, Harry finds Delly living with her lecherous stepfather, Tom (John Crawford), and his sexy companion, Paula (Jennifer Warren). Also part of the mix is Quentin (James Woods), a squirrelly friend of Delly’s who works as a mechanic for film-industry stuntmen.
Alan Sharp’s provocative script features murky plotting but crisp character work, so even when the story is hard to follow, moment-to-moment engagement between people is interesting. And since the film is driven by Harry’s zigzag journey from naïveté to despair and then to a misguided sort of optimism, each time he encounters some tricky new piece of information, his relationship with someone changes. Though Hackman was never one to play for cheap sympathy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Harry cast about for someone who deserves his trust, only to be disappointed again and again.
Every performance in the movie exists in the shadow of Hackman’s great work, but all of the actors hit the right notes, with Griffith’s adolescent petulance resonating strongly. Composer Michael Small and cinematographer Bruce Surtees contribute tremendously to the film’s shadowy mood, and Penn achieves one of his finest cinematic moments with the picture’s desolate finale. Night Moves gets a bit pretentious at times, but when the movie is really flying, it becomes a potent meditation on the challenge of finding sold moral footing during a confusing period in the evolution of the American identity.
Night Moves: GROOVY