Saturday 15 October 2016

Movie Review: Night Moves (1975)

A neo-noir detective thriller, Night Moves is an engrossing character study ironically elevated by an almost incomprehensible plot featuring large gaps and plenty of edges.

Through his friend Nick (Kenneth Mars), Los Angeles based former pro footballer and now private detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is hired by has-been movie starlet and multiple divorcée Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to find her runaway 16 year old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith). Arlene is less interested in Delly's well-being and more in need of the money generated by her daughter's trust fund. Just as he starts his investigation Harry stumbles on his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) having an affair under his nose with a man called Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). He pushes on regardless and starts to uncover the web of Delly's friends, including greasy mechanic Quentin (James Woods), caustic movie stunt director Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) and handsome stunt pilot Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello).

Learning that Delly is an uninhibited sexpot who is sleeping her way through her mother's former lovers, Harry makes his way to the Florida keys where he finds Delly hanging out with Arlene's second ex-husband Tom Iverson (John Crawford). Tom appears to have already been ensnared by Delly's sexual charms, but his partner Paula (Jennifer Warren) is nevertheless curiously still standing by him. Harry is attracted to Paula but struggles to make sense of what is going on and is unsure if he should return Delly to her mother. A grisly underwater discovery suddenly makes the case a lot more complicated.

Directed by Arthur Penn and written by Alan Sharp, Night Moves is a beautiful mess. With some jarring editing, audacious risks and a plot that scribbles on the periphery of character disintegration, the movie could have dissolved into irrelevance. Instead Penn conjures up a companion piece to The Big Sleep, stripped of even the pretense of thorny heroism. The story of Night Moves is littered with holes, ill-defined motivations and at least one incredible coincidence. It does not matter. The focus is on Harry Moseby standing witness to his family life and career crumbling around his ears, while he intellectually believes that there is something he can do about it.

The signs are clear early on that Moseby's detective skills fall short. This is a man who could not detect his own wife having an affair, and later cannot untangle the relationship between Tom and Paula. He thinks he is saving Delly by depositing her back with her mother, but that proves to be the worst possible move. All the time he is obsessed with replaying and demonstrating a chess match where a winning strategy involving clever knight moves was missed and the game lost. Moseby is a man always running behind events, falling further back every time he uncovers another piece of the puzzle, and most unfortunately oblivious to his own incompetence.

Penn is not just satisfied with an in depth look at one miserable character: he surrounds him with all that the mid-1970s had to offer in terms of a dispirited society, where 1960s communal idealism crashed against Watergate and the oil crisis, triggering an era of unfettered narcissism. Arlene is a silicone enhanced has-been collecting ex-husbands and still acting the role of being interested in her daughter, while her only real desire is income continuance.

Meanwhile, Delly is not waiting for anyone: she has appropriated the sexual revolution for her selfish purpose, devouring her mother's former lovers in service of personal pleasure. At 16, she is already deploying sex as a weapon of mass escapism across the country. Meanwhile, the movie industry is a cover for illicit activities, the exportation of American culture through on-screen magic a cover-up for a nefarious scheme involving cultural imports.

Moseby walks into this cesspool believing that he is actually good, and Gene Hackman is brilliant at portraying a pathetic man catching up too late with his own incompetence. Ruffled, betrayed, and played repeatedly for a fool, Hackman ensures that Moseby is an unforgettable tragic figure. The supporting cast members share the screen time, planets circling Moseby's dying sun. Particularly effective are Melanie Griffith and James Woods, who both make strong marks in early roles.

Night Moves ends with Moseby coming to terms with the limits of his talent. After chasing the truth back and forth across the country, his fate is simplified into small circles, so that even he can understand it.

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