Night Moves: An absorbing 70s’ neo-noir from Arthur Penn

Private investigators and Hollywood always make a nice combo. Sometimes the stories have these private investigators living in and around Hollywood and taking on cases that involve people from the movie industry. Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye was one such film. It featured a modern day interpretation of the famed Philip Marlowe character, the extraordinarily cynical private investigator who was part of several renowned thrillers and played by different actors.

Two years later Arthur Penn decided to make a similar film called Night Moves in which Gene Hackman played a Philip Marlowe-type character, albeit less cynical, named Harry Moseby. Like Penn’s seminal film Bonnie and Clyde, it came loaded with a heavy dose of pessimism and just as he did with that film, he wastes no time in setting up the characters. Harry is contacted by a washed out older actress and asked to find out her missing daughter Delly (a young and unrecognizable Melanie Griffith).

Meanwhile, Harry finds out that his life is beginning to resemble one of his assignments. During a late night drive, he sees his wife with another guy coming out of a movie theater playing Eric Rohmer’s One Night at Maud’s. Harry had decided to skip it because he had once seen a Rohmer movie and to him, the experience was akin to watching paint dry (this is now a famous line). Instead of approaching his wife, he goes straight to this man’s residence and badgers him about it until he spills the beans.

Harry then decides to take off to Florida to find the missing girl. There we meet more interesting characters. James Woods has a small role as a suspicious mechanic called Quentin. This was one of Woods’ earliest roles. While this film suffers from the same problem as many of the private detective films that came before it  – a confusing plot – it makes up for it in interesting characters. The stories these characters tell about their own lives, real or not, are more fascinating than the one the film has to say. The actors, especially Hackman, and the atmosphere make the film absorbing.

Almost every character treats sexual promiscuity as if it’s a natural thing and at least two of them have indulged in one form of sexual perversion. There are two murders and their motives are vague. After a while, I was as confused as Harry was and while I did some guess work as to who the main culprit is, by the time I got to the ending, I didn’t really care, even though I was slightly pleased by that revelation. Did I see this vagueness as a flaw? Not really, because even a great noir like The Big Sleep takes several puzzling detours that by the time we get to its ending, we are not sure where it all started. But there’s fun in participating.

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