Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Arthur Penn: Night Moves

By Edward Copeland
Of all the Arthur Penn films I hadn't seen when news of his death arrived, the one I looked most forward to seeing was Night Moves since I'd heard so many good things about it. While the 1975 film is fine and Gene Hackman does great work as a private detective named Harry, the whole time I kept thinking of the vastly superior Harry that he played for Francis Ford Coppola in the previous year's masterpiece The Conversation.

The Harry Moseby in Night Moves started his own detective agency after his career in football ended. His wife Ellen (Susan Clark) wishes that he'd dump the agency and its unpredictable schedule and accept a long-standing offer from a friend (Kenneth Mars) to work for his detecting company which would be more of an office job which Harry derisively refers to as an "information factory."

Harry and Ellen's marriage has been more strained than usual lately as when she asks if he wants to accompany her to see Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's but Harry says he's seen a Rohmer before and it was like watching paint dry. Besides, Harry's landed what should be an easy case: a boozy former actress (Janet Ward) wants him to find her wild 16-year-old stepdaughter Delly (a very young Melanie Griffith) who has disappeared before, but never for this length of time.

To make matters worse for Harry, as he's out driving, he passes the theater where My Night at Maud's is letting out and discovers that Ellen is having an affair with another man (Harris Yulin). The next day, when he goes to an interview an ex of Delly (a young James Woods) he takes his marital frustrations out on the young mechanic. He also confronts his wife's lover before telling her he's on to her. When she comes home from a rendezvous to find Harry watching football in the dark on a tiny black-and-white television, she asks who's winning. "Nobody. One side is just losing slower than the other."

Though Penn moves the film along swiftly, again aided by editor Dede Allen as well as a nice score by Michael Small, when the eventual mystery develops, it proves to be somewhat of a snoozer because it basically involves everyone that has been introduced that's not involved with Harry's cuckolding and none of those characters have been developed to a degree to make any of them that interesting. Hackman literally is steering this ship solo.

Alan Sharp's screenplay tosses out a good line here and there and they almost all belong to Hackman, but aside from Clark, no role gets drawn particularly well, especially the other male characters who all run together, especially when the elements of stuntmen and Hollywood filmmaking get thrown in the mix. Not even the nubile Griffith playing a Lolitaesque nymphet who spends more time with her clothes off than on helps things much.

Toward the film's conclusion, one of the female characters tells Harry that he should feel satisfied since he solved the mystery and he replies that he didn't solve anything, it just sort of dropped on him and that's the truth.

Night Moves isn't bad, just a disappointment. By the time it's over, all I wanted to do was look up Harry Caul and see how his electronic surveillance is going again.

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I often recall the confrontation between Hackman and his wife in the kitchen, and he attempts to grind up a wine glass in the garbage disposal.
I think you should give this film a second viewing, I just screened it and it is a very subtly constructed film.

The climax is a very surprising bit of bravura filmmaking.

Paul Wilson
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