Like most members of Generation Y, ever since the Playstation Network went down I’ve been drifting aimlessly through my weekends. I finished the phenomenal Portal 2 (2011) just as the PSN closed down; leaving what I am told is a stellar co-op experience impossible. Yet, while my video game habit has suffered from this hacker induced technological and ludic disaster, another habit has been given some much needed breeze in its sails: movie watching. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the last thing I want to do with my free time is watch movies. I tend to spend the bulk of my time doing it and, like any habit pushed to the highest levels of involvement, it can be draining. So I fasted, cinematically, for a few days and ended up purging myself on a glut of Errol Morris documentaries and a neo-noir that had evaded my noir cinephilia: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), now on Netflix Watch Instantly.
Pajiba readers are not strangers to my love of noir. In 2009, I spent the summer counting down some of my favorite noirs from the classical period. The following summer, I focused on my favorite neo-noirs and this summer, I plan on focusing on international noir films. So, if you’re a noir junkie like myself, I’d direct you to those postings and advise you that this attempt to bring Night Moves from out of the dark shadows and into the light follows much of my analysis of neo-noir. In my earlier review of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), I wrote that I felt neo-noir’s relationship to noir was one of self-reflexivity. Quite simply, the filmmakers behind the classical period of noir did not know what noir was. It was a generic label that was applied years after the fact, by the French, and later embellished throughout the 70s by scholars in Film Studies. When neo-noir came around, that scholarship had begun to seep into filmmaking practice (most notably in the figure of Paul Schrader, who wrote a seminal essay on the movement before writing the screenplays to films like Taxi Driver and Hardcore).
Penn’s film is no different in its awareness of what has come before. When private detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is hired by aging Hollywood starlet Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to find her daughter (Melanie Griffith), she asks him if he is the kind of detective who, once he gets on the case, anything can get him off of it, including “Bribes, beatings, the allure of women.” Harry replies with deadpan, “That was true in the old days, before we had a union.” That quote sets up the central thesis of Night Moves: it is simplistic to think that, in post-Watergate America, a private detective can function the same way as Philip Marlowe could (see also The Long Goodbye). Harry is a detective who is terrible at his job because anything can get him off it.
Those external variables include his cheating wife (Susan Clark), a lover (Jennifer Warren), and a plot so convoluted that we are never given the solution. Why? Because the film follows the noir convention of point of view (a convention which kindly lends its name to a boat in the film). We are only given access to what Harry is given access to; noir often functions like the detective film, with a subjective account providing the backbone to the narrative. Harry is so busy thinking about his cheating wife, playing chess, and fucking around that he’s missing the case that is unraveling in front of him.
Obviously, I do not what to get into the nuts and bolts of the mystery. This is for two reasons, as I do not want to spoil the ending and I do not quite know how to put all the pieces together myself. This is very much a cynical film (the bloody climax is vicious, recalling the existential no man’s land of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and, for all the sniping the film makes towards 60s and 70s art cinema (Harry remarks that he once saw a Eric Rohmer film and it was like “watching paint dry”), Night Moves owes much to the work of Europeans, especially Michelangelo Antonioni. The end shot leaves us, like Harry, drifting and aimless, completely lost as the mystery concludes. Moreover, the motives of the suspect are kept hidden from us as the person drowns while trying to explain everything in the salty ocean off the coast of the Florida Keys.
This type of narrative construction could be frustrating to an average moviegoer seeking a cut and dry mystery. Yet, Penn is able to do so much with a relatively simple conceit and much of that falls on the back of Gene Hackman. In this film, he’s come a long way from the cocky beat cop he played in The French Connection (1971), owing more to his similar character in ineptitude, Harry Caul, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from the year before. He’s passionate about his life, frustrated, and when he gets his ass kicked with a seashell turned into a pair of brass knuckles, we feel the frustration as the blood drips into his eyes. This movie, which also features a subplot involving the movies that would make for an entirely different discussion, makes Harry’s loss our own, a rare reward that stems from the collision between narrative point of view and Hackman’s honed performance. It’s a shame he retired and especially tragic that he did so after the horrible Welcome to Mooseport (2004). We need the Hack, back!
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.