Night Moves

(Arthur Penn, USA, 1975): With his shaggy combover, receding hairline, and untrimmed sideburns and ‘stache, Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby looks like he rolled into the 1970s off the back of a truck. He isn’t wearing the decade well, and it does not bode well for the case the former Oakland Raiders jock turned private dick takes on as a favour to a friend: to find a missing teenage girl (Melanie Griffith: ripe and ready and all of sixteen) at a time when untold thousands of them were hitting the road that lead anywhere but home. If Harry can’t even manage the new grooming standards of the day, who in hell is he ever going to find Delly?

Or, if he does, how is he going not going to somehow screw it up, the same way he’s already screwed up his marriage (to Susan Clark), his football career, his paltry private eye trade and the management of his own self-loathing and bitterness? Nothing in Harry radiates much by way of confidence or mastery of mystery, and it’s hard not to think he takes the case simply as a distraction from the hard news that his wife is messing around or maybe just a plane ticket from L.A. to the Florida Keys. Anything to keep on the move, even if the Keys he does land in looks like a trailer park for white trash the wind has blown all the way from the opposite coast.

Scripted by the late Alan Clark (Ulzana’s Raid, The Hired Hand) and directed by Arthur Penn, Night Moves is, like so many private eye movies of its era, about failure, the obstinate refusal of clues to pile up in any way that honours the generic tradition of the freelance detective being the one guy around who knows more than everybody because he’s the only guy who can lift his head above the swamp high enough to see what’s really going on. The Keys are a vivid stand-in for that swamp, and it’s all Harry can do not to fall into the dolphin cage kept by Delly’s unsavoury stepfather (John Crawford). The water is rising, and in the end Harry will be left circling on its surface in a boat as wounded, adrift and useless as he is.

Driven by his fear of failure, Harry is of course a prime candidate for manipulation, and Delly’s case proves that Harry’s not only right about his own inadequacy but everyone else is too. Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Joe Frady in The Parallax View and Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the lone wolf is himself prey, a herd outlier who is run by forces hip to his game and only too willing to capitalize on his weakness and self-loathing. In the conventional private detective narrative, the shamus’s principle independence is a shield from corruption and confirmation of an exalted code: he’s untarnishable and out of rot’s reach. But by the ’70s this stance was a fool’s duck and cover strategy, and being alone simply meant being a better fall guy. Harry, in the process of uncovering an ancient artefact smuggling operation — a nod, in its cynical way, to the stuff than dreams had been made of since The Maltese Falcon — may think he’s closing in on redemption by tracking the sinister conspiracy behind the young woman’s disappearance, but he’s actually just playing another game according to someone else’s rules, and it will prove, if anything, even more humiliating than a mediocre season or two on the sidelines.

As played by the graciously unsentimental Hackman, Harry Moseby is a guy whose idea of doing the right thing has become so terminally clouded by his own self-pitying rage he’s too defensive to read the most salient clue right in front of him, which is that nobody seems to be taking him seriously. Everyone cracks wiser than Harry, no one seems spooked by his presence or investigation, and everyone seems comfortable providing a no-cost assessment of how little his life seems to have amounted to so far. Paula (Jennifer Warren), the partner of Delly’s stepfather who knows Harry better than he does and who uses her gift for rat-a-tat patter as a way of making Harry think he’s getting somewhere, is the classic femme fatale re-configured for the post-utopian ’70s, a woman using her allure to string along a man for whom the sexual revolution probably existed only in Playboy but still dreams of scoring anyway. She’s got Harry’s number like a cat watching a fishbowl, and he might even be foolish enough to love her if he didn’t hate himself so much. “Do you ask these questions because you want to know the answer, or is it just something you think a detective should do?” she asks him at one point.

“I just want you to know I’m here,” says Harry.

Harry won’t make his mark outside of the impression he leaves on us as a guy lost and adrift, and Night Moves is a movie about vanishing, no so much physically as spiritually, without leaving a trace. While Harry isn’t erased from existence quite as utterly as Frady at the end of The Parallax View or even Hackman’s other hapless Harry in The Conversation, he’s left to live with the zero sum total of his life so far, a series of actions, choices and consequences that add up to nothing but everybody getting away with murder except the guy dumb enough to think he can get away with it.

With its knowingly redemption-proofed screenplay — perhaps the finest revisionist gumshoe exercise of them all — and cast of variously duplicitous and unimpressed characters, Night Moves is as rich and enduringly immersive as the water below that boat we leave Harry circling around in. While Arthur Penn’s conspicuously flat direction suggests a man who might himself given up on the idea of changing what’s already written, it can’t do anything to dull the lacerating edge of Sargent’s words. While the “Which Kennedy?”/”Any Kennedy” exchange between Paula and Harry — who’s asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot — might well stand as the watermark for sounding the existential depths of the era, the movie is actually so full of caustic rumination on a lost world it qualifies as a kind of elegy for something not so much lost as never really found. “Who’s winning?” asks Harry’s cheating wife when she comes home to find him watching an NFL game. “Nobody” is Harry’s response. “One side is just losing slower than the other.” (Warner Home Video)

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