For a brief moment in the 1970’s American filmmakers seemed to stumble upon something special. Following the runaway success of “Easy Rider” directors were presented with the opportunity to tell smaller, more character driven stories and even genre films were given a three dimensional spin. The rise and fall of this period is well documented elsewhere (“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the book and the film) but suffice to say there are many films from this strange period that have yet to be rediscovered by a modern audience. Criminally overlooked Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” is a subversively quiet spin on the detective genre anchored by the always engaging Gene Hackman.
Harry Moseby (Hackman) is certainly not you classic detective seeing how he is a retired football player turned private eye following his success in tracking down his own father who abandoned him. Harry is also not a suave loner and is instead married to Ellen (Susan Clark) who may be having an affair. Given a job out of pity Moseby finds himself on the trail of Delly (Melanie Griffith) a young spoiled brat who has gone missing. Taking the work as an opportunity to escape from his depressing home life and to try and do something positive, Harry tracks Delly to the Florida Keys where she is staying with her stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and his mistress Paula (Jennifer Warren). While Delly is a pain Harry seems to enjoy his time in Florida, spending time away from his wife and in the company of the witty Paula. His interaction with Paula is entertaining in its realism, their conversations are natural and there is a certain pleasure in watching them play off one another. However instead of being merely a character study the film has a vastly different agenda, what we have been watching has not been as simple as originally perceived and Harry has stumbled onto something that may be too large for him to handle. The first hour of “Night Moves” is deceptively quiet, we are given the complex character of Harry, a man perhaps too sensitive for the line of work he has chosen, investing too much of himself into situations beyond his control and not ready for what is to come. To give any more away would spoil the mystery and the jackhammer of an ending but suffice to say the plot picks up.
The theme of the classic American detective beings anachronistic in the 70’s was not a new one. Robert Altman and Roman Polanski had both created masterpieces stemming from such a concept but whereas “The Long Goodbye” and “Chinatown” showed the noble detective being thwarted by a world far too corrupt to fix, Penn’s vision shows that even the detective is not above human fallibility. Whereas the Marlowe character in “The Long Goodbye” and Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” act heroically despite the overwhelming odds against them, Moseby seems to do more harm than good, people would have better off without him ever having been involved at all.
The disappearance of “Night Moves” from the mainstream consciousness is kind of metaphoric for Arthur Penn as well who, following the seventies, was largely forgotten about despite having made three masterpieces; the highly influential “Bonnie and Clyde”, the revisionist western “Little Big Man” and then “Night Moves”. Now available of the first time on DVD “Night Moves” deserves the opportunity to be seen, it has a slow build and those with a bit of patience are in for a great payoff to a great film.