By: Ali Moosavi
The Seventies was a golden decade for film noirs. Most people, if asked about the great film noirs of that decade, will start with Chinatown (1974), the Roman Polanski masterwork. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) also has its fervent admirers. For my money, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) is at least as good as those two and is one of the classic noirs of any decade.
Penn had worked with Gene Hackman before in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), for which Hackman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. By 1975, Hackman was not only a major star, but had also appeared in two classic film noirs, The French Connection (1971) and The Conversation (1974). The script for Night Moves was written by Alan Sharpe, a Scotsman who after writing scripts for British TV series in the Sixties, had relocated to Hollywood and made a name for himself by writing a few westerns: The Hired Hand (1971), Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and Billy Two Hats (1974). Writing scripts for westerns for someone coming fresh from Scotland may seem odd but let us not forget that country and western music originated in Scotland. The cinematographer, Bruce Surtees was known for his collaboration with Clint Eastwood, photographing most of the films where Eastwood had either directed or starred in, including The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry (all 1971) and had recently been nominated for an Oscar for Lenny (1974). Night Moves was edited by the legendary, and three times Oscar nominee, Dede Allen who had worked on every Penn film since Bonnie and Clyde, including Little Big Man (1970); as well as editing classic films such as The Hustler (1961) and Serpico (1973).
Night Moves has a classic film noir opening. Private detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) receives an assignment from a has-been actress to find her teenage daughter. The actress has been through a few husbands and countless men. She hit the jackpot when one of her husbands was a rich Hollywood producer, enabling her to have a luxury lifestyle, long after his death. Sharpe has very succinctly portrayed her in his script. She tells Moseby “I was never really big; there were a lot like me, you know, studio premiers, studio romances, not much talent.” She suspects that her daughter has gone to Florida Keys where one of her stepdads is a stunt coordinator for movies.
Like many other movie private detectives, Harry Moseby has marital problems. Moseby is an ex pro football player and not much of a culture vulture. His wife, who works in an antique shop, is the opposite. When Harry goes to see her at work, she asks him if he wants to go with her to see Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s at the local art cinema. Harry is not interested: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry!” Harry finds his wife is having an affair. He cannot understand why his wife would cheat on a husband who is a good-looking ex-footballer to have an affair with someone who is unattractive and walks with the aid of a stick. Being a detective, he looks for clues. He goes to the man’s apartment. He sees the walls adorned with paintings. The clues are there for him to see.
In Florida Keys, he finds that the teenager Delly (a very young Melanie Griffith) is indeed there with his stepfather, who is only too happy to get rid of her. Harry also meets Paula (Jeniffer Warren) who works there. She is exactly Harry’s type: active, humorous, no-nonsense. She’s been around; She tells Harry she has “taught school, kept house, waited tables, did a little stripping, a little hooking”. Harry keeps a small chess set with him and plays moves on it to keep his mind off the real world. In a key scene of the movie, Harry shows Paula three knight moves that in a match played in 1922 would have enabled one player to win. But the player didn’t see the moves, he played something else and lost. Harry adds: “He must have regretted it everyday of his life. I know I would have.” These words take on a prophetic meaning later. Killings happen. Once we’ve seen the film, we know that the clues were there. Only Harry couldn’t see them. Will he regret it for the rest of his life?
Great film noirs tend to have an ending which sticks in the memory. Think of the endings in Chinatown, The Third Man (1949), Vertigo (1958), to name a few. Night Moves also has an unforgettable ending which not only shocks but is also perfect for the story.
Night Moves is one of those rare films where all the individual elements, fell into place like a completed jigsaw puzzle. The casting, photography, editing, direction and above all, the script. Alan Sharpe’s screenplay is a classic of the genre. It is one of those scripts that could be read and enjoyed on its own without the benefit of the images. It reads like a Raymond Chandler novel, full of classic, quotable lines. Though on the surface, it is a detective story, Night Moves is much more than that. It is about communication, and lack of it. It also shows the unglamorous, dirty side of the movie business. It is about greed, deceit, morals and lack of them. It is a great film noir and one of Arthur Penn’s best movies. Penn, one of the great American directors, was nominated three times for Best Director Oscar. Never won. Was not even given an honorary Oscar. He passed away in 2010 but his name will be remembered for a long time with films like Night Moves.