Monday, July 11, 2011
Night Moves (1975)
NIGHT MOVES rests almost entirely on the character of Harry Moseby, a retired football player turned cut-rate private eye who stumbles into a complex smuggling operation while tracking a missing girl. Gene Hackman plays Moseby with a weary eye and wounded pride. He's an average operator, often behind on the score. He trades on his lingering sports fame and a kind of blustery toughness to make easy cases. Harry Moseby is no hero. He's too tired, too depressed, and too slow on the uptake to be of any real use to anyone, including his wife and the client he's trying to find.
That we buy into Moseby's character is essential because the plot of the film is deliberately misleading, hiding and revealing in equal amounts to leave both character and audience in the dark: there's a missing girl, some shady stuntmen, sailors, and mechanics, a boozed out mother with a bad history, and a wary ex-stripper whose motivations are suspect only because it seems Harry can't trust a woman regardless of her intentions. These characters revolve around each other in a sort of pointless circling centered around Harry and his inability to make heads-or-tails out of their greater relationship. When the final piece of the puzzle is revealed, the result is only more enigmatic, bleak, and disheartening. There's no answer for Harry, nothing to solve. As he himself stated, Harry Moseby doesn't so much solve cases as stumble into their resolution. In that sense, it's almost classically noir, in that he did a lot of work but little good. Almost everyone involved is dead and Harry's got nothing to show for it except a wounded leg.
Arthur Penn directed NIGHT MOVES as a meditation through genre on the existential ennui of the post-Watergate era. And as an ambitious experiment in that direction, it fails to deliver. A straight forward, slightly nuanced noir would've worked better in keeping the pace and setting out the detail. Instead, NIGHT MOVES feels waterlogged. A sub-plot involving Moseby and his wife starts promising on the thrill of adultery but settles into a mawkish exploration of Moseby's childhood abandonment issues and his resultant false bravado in the face of emotion. This really sidetracks the main premise and undermines the nuanced work that Hackman was doing with the character. All the layering was already there, in his face and movement and terseness. Hackman nailed the character, no explication necessary.
Another fault is Penn's overall direction and cinematic vision. The film is visually unengaging. Aside from a thrilling stunt and some beautiful shots at the finish, the composition, framing, and editing are all sub-standard (even by 70's thriller standards). You'd never guess that such an acclaimed director was at the helm. The entire films looks and feels flat. If it weren't for Hackman's magnetism and profound abilities as an actor, NIGHT MOVES really wouldn't be worth watching. For all it's acclaim, I was left wanting, intrigued more by the squandered potential than by what was actually delivered.
One thing I did like about the film is that it proves that not all noir films need dark alleys and deepening shadows to bring across their brooding cynicism and despair. NIGHT MOVES is so sun-drenched as to be bleached out. There's no room for romance, hope, and optimism under such a bright and unrelenting sky.
NIGHT MOVES (Penn, USA, 1975)