The 1970’s and the New Hollywood movement produced a lot of fascinating work rooted in the turmoil of the times. The changing milieu of mainstream cinema allowed for films that reflected the distrust, paranoia and cynicism – and also the good humor and thumbing noses at authority – of the younger generation(s) of the time. It was director Arthur Penn’s own Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that is often cited as being a landmark film that ushered in the movement. Hated by the old school film critics and the studio heads that financed it (including, but not limited to, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, who released the film), it was shuffled on to B-movie billings and drive-ins at first, but it spoke loud and clear to a younger generation with its edgy editing style influenced by international art cinema, its ambiguous morality, and its far less chaste take on sexuality than recent blockbusters like The Sound of Music and it eventually earned millions for the studio and became a hit. After the film opened the doors for more financial successes like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and MASH, Penn went on to make the counter-culture classics Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man before taking a break for several years.
He returned to feature filmmaking with this film, released in 1975 and considered a failure on its first release. Where Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man had been fairly major hits and Alice’s Restaurant had been a small-scale success, and even in a year where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon were hits, Jaws reclaimed for Hollywood the blockbuster style of filmmaking they were used to and set the path for filmmaking that persists to this day. There was very little room then for a small downer of a film like Night Moves that did not go for a major statement (as did Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day) but instead mined a darkly resigned personal drama, even if it hearkens back to another era and genre of Hollywood films – the films noir of the 1940’s. Where film noir mined the repressed sexuality of the day with grim crime films and sparkling dialogue, the more open 1970’s allowed for an up front examination of many of the same topics – here again sexuality and debauchery are linked to the failures of our lead man, the no-bullshit-taking Harry Moseby (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman), a former football player turned low-rent private eye specializing in divorce work. He’s having marital problems of his own and is hardly happy with his work as he’s belittled by his wife and others for having retreated from his former glory and not doing something more reputable. It’s a very human version of the P.I. story, not the distanced cool associated with a Bogart-styled character. But Harry’s got integrity, something decidedly lacking in everyone else around him, from his friend who buys Central American antiques on the cheap to turn a huge profit, to his cheating spouse, to the washed-up former actress who hires him to find her missing daughter but is more concerned with looking glamorous and laying Hackman than locating her missing daughter. And in true noir fashion as his investigation shifts from L.A. to Florida to find the missing girl, he uncovers a far bigger mystery, and as he gets closer to the truth all his leads start disappearing or turning up dead.
The film kicks off gloomy with his bad relationship before he’s ever even found the girl Delly (short for Delilah) or the first of several bodies that turn up, or even really begun his investigation. She’s played by a young Melanie Griffith, a wild kid in trouble (a year before Jodie Foster’s similarly street-wise and daring turn in Taxi Driver). Between his rocky relationship and the way the film’s shot – all dark tones when it’s night (as it often is in the film) and muted brightness in the daytime (even on the sunny shores of Florida) – and edited, much in the same unusual, off-kilter manner as Bonnie and Clyde, it sets an unsettling vibe from the get-go. And then there’s dialogue like this, as Harry watches a football game on TV at home, in the dark:
Ellen: “Who’s winning?”
Harry: “Nobody, one side’s just losing slower than the other.”
Or once he’s found Delly and is still trying to piece together the parts that don’t add up, there’s her simple, to the point statement: “I think people are shitty. But you’re OK.”
Like many classic noir films (The Big Sleep comes to mind), the plot is dense and convoluted – there are so many connections, double crosses, and loaded dialogue that means more only later once you see the bigger picture that it requires multiple viewings to sort it all out. And the worldview is sour for sure – also in line with the grimness of much film noir. It’s easy to see how in the summer of Jaws, where the big bad guy is defeated in explosive, exciting fashion, that this film – gloomy, insecure, inconclusive – wouldn’t have been a hit, or even a moderate success. And the other films produced out of the counter-culture of the day provided exhilarating revolutions, even if they failed. This one shows the vice grip of corruption and debased behavior on its characters and doesn’t let fly with glib statements to reassure anybody. But it’s a classic, a worthy heir to masterpiece of The Big Sleep from the writing to the stellar performances across the board, to the superb filmmaking that updates and touches back to the classic noirs without overtly mimicking them. It’s a gem in Arthur Penn’s catalog, rivaled (for me) only by Bonnie and Clyde. And some days this one feels truer than even that film.
- Patrick Brown