Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Night Moves (1975)

"Take a swing, Harry, the way Sam Spade would."

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) confronts Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), the man who is sleeping with Moseby's wife, Ellen (Susan Clark). Moseby is understandably hurt at his wife's infidelity yet he has not confronted her. If this were a traditional cinematic confrontation, then Heller would be getting a beating at the hands of Moseby, as Heller's line of dialogue (above) relates. Moseby, the ex-pro-football player turned private eye, would probably have little trouble with Heller in a squabble, as Heller needs the help of a cane in order to walk. The confrontation does not end in the traditional sense. Harry Moseby is a traditional private eye about to become embroiled in a classic noir case. However, Harry Moseby and his performance by Gene Hackman are not going to be given a traditional rendition.
Night Moves (1975) is directed by Arthur Penn, who previously directed Hackman in his excellent Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and is written by Alan Sharp. It's a clever script and in some ways, its spiritual kin is Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). Here's a quick plot synopsis:

Harry Moseby is an ex-football player now a private investigator. He is referred a case by a colleague, and the case involves a former actress of mild success, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), whose sixteen-year-old, wayward daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith), has taken a flit. From Los Angeles, Moseby tracks Delly from a movie set in New Mexico to the southern tip of Florida in the Keys where she has holed up with her stepfather, Tom (John Crawford), and pretty Paula (Jennifer Warren). After a short stay in the Keys, during which a corpse is found in the bottom of the ocean by Delly, Moseby brings Delly back to Los Angeles to reunite with her mother. This reunion turns out pretty bad for all involved.

Alan Sharp's script and Arthur Penn's direction admirably strive for an engaging plot-driven thriller buttressed by strong character drama. My chief complaint about Night Moves results from this attempted balance between the plot drive and the character drama. At the film's conclusion (which is quite exciting), inexorably I was left with the feeling that I've watched a familiar noir story. Its strengths were clearly in its characters and their performances. There were nuances to each character that were so adept and intriguing that I almost wished that these characters would have stepped out of their conservative story and just roamed free to make their own decisions.

Moseby engages in three intimate relationships within Night Moves: one with wife Ellen, the second with Paula, and the third with young Delly. Hackman's relationship with Clark's Ellen is clearly a depiction of 1975 sociology: Moseby is the "new male": sensitive and ready to be vulnerable with his feelings. Moseby's silent brooding hides childhood fears and insecurities, instead of the traditional male depiction: stoic, a man of few words and almost completely of action. As Heller remarked to him during their confrontation, "Take a swing, Harry, the way Sam Spade would." Moseby and Ellen's relationship is defined by this conflict: Ellen really only wants Moseby to open up to her, and through his vulnerability, they'll achieve a real emotional intimacy. Despite the fact that Ellen and Moseby have an affecting and endearing scene later, where Moseby opens up to Ellen about his insecurities, the entire depiction of their relationship feels so transparent. In other words, there is this overwhelming sense that their relationship is defined by their "new" roles and confined to them. Save their endearing scene later, each never able to step out of their sociological models. Too much textbook, I guess.
Jennifer Warren gives quite a performance as Paula. At the end of the film, she is the character about whom I wished I knew more. Moseby and Paula have an instant attraction at their first meeting, and as Night Moves progresses, from all appearances, Paula is the character most like Moseby. It's fairly evident that she's reticent to share anything with Moseby about her life, and it's easy to tell she wants to open up to him but is scared. Every time that Moseby queries her, Paula immediately puts up her defenses: she wants to know if Moseby is asking about her as an investigator or asking about her as someone who might actually care to know about her. The relationship had such a charged potential and had it been developed further (to accompany Hackman and Warren's strong performances) undoubtedly the film would have elevated monumentally. Unfortunately, a lot of the mystery behind Paula's character doesn't hide anything of substance: Paula's mystery yields to the plot and by the final act, the character of Paula has more importance as a plot device. This is a shame, and it shouldn't take away from Warren's excellent performance. She's so sexy and so charismatic that she arguably commands every scene that she's in. In small but representative scene of how good Warren's performance is, Moseby is peeking through the blinds of Tom's shack down by the shore line on the Coast. He is clearly staring at Paula. Paula is wearing a sock cap and after noticing Moseby's gaze, she removes her cap and allows her golden blonde hair to fall out. It's a "stand at attention" moment. Melanie Griffith's young performance as the nymphet, Delly, attracts a lot of attention in conversation about Night Moves. I am only speculating, because in addition to her very provocative scenes, her character seems eerily similar to Griffith in her own personal life. Penn puts some real care into her depiction: clearly, he is attempting to show Delly's seductive charm yet he also adeptly balances showing that she's really just a child. Of all the characters, Delly has the most similar life to Moseby. Later when Moseby's past is revealed, one can see why he felt such sympathy for the wayward young woman. When Moseby completes his case and sends her home, the regret that Hackman shows on his face is felt immediately. Griffith has always been an interesting actress and has given some truly memorable roles, such as in Something Wild (1986). Griffith's emotion is always genuine and her charisma and beauty are undeniable. I would recommend Night Moves very highly as a character drama and would recommend it modestly as a thriller. Gene Hackman, one of the best actors of his generation, is at his peak of his abilities. He is absolutely brilliant as Harry Moseby. Night Moves has undeniable creativity in its character development but unfortunately has way too much conservatism in its plot rendition. There's too strong a desire to connect the dots to create a meticulous and organized picture where a looser more organic structure is needed. The plot hampers its rich and memorable characters and their accompanying performances.


Dr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. I also enjoyed this film. I just wish more of the scenes were set at Keller's apartment. Maybe Moseby should have taken a swing at him. And that is large and in charge.

Alex B. said...

Love 'The Long Goodby'e, so if this one is anything similar,I should give it a shot.