Revised and updated Saturday morning.
Contains images that may not be safe for work.
A gritty “realism” that focuses on the junkiness and sordidness of life.
Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a two-bit private detective, scraping the bottom of other PI’s barrels for cases. He’s the kind of private eye you’d describe as down on his luck if he’d ever had any luck to begin with. Harry used to play pro football and was pretty good until an injury cut short his career. Oddly, sadly, his best game as a player and the game he appears to be remembered for happened when he was in college, and his team lost. He’s drifted into the detective business and is not making much money at it but he likes being his own boss and setting his own hours and the job allows him to flatter himself that he’s something of a romantic figure, even a sort of hero. The work that comes his way, though, makes him a part-time process server and professional Peeping Tom. And on a stake-out the big mystery he uncovers is that his wife is cheating on him.
Harry has some skills, however, and a friend who runs a large, high-tech detective agency keeps throwing him free-lance work; there’s also a standing job offer Harry could and should take his friend up on if he wants anything like financial security, a stable life, and an actual profession.
Harry would still be a private eye, an actual investigator with the resources and support to do the work the right. Then there’s the matter of the regular and remunerative paycheck.
But he’d have to admit he is what he is, a guy doing a job to make a living and not a movie hero out saving damsels in distress.
Night Moves gets underway with the friend calling Harry with a case to work on. A sixteen year old girl has run away from home. Her mother wants her brought back. It’s a job for a family flunky, not a real detective, and the friend is embarrassed offering it to Harry. In fact, the case is an excuse to get Harry into the office to renew the offer of a real position with the agency. But it turns out that the girl’s mother is a one-time movie starlet whose name lights up something in Harry’s psyche. He has a thing for the movies.
The case draws him into the movie business, but only on the most peripheral edges. He moves among stunt men, stagehands and techies, and once upon a time starlets who can’t be called has-beens because they’re pretty much never-weres. But there’s just enough borrowed glamour to allow Harry to pretend this case is something bigger than his usual keyhole peeping.
Anti-heroes weren’t invented in the 70s, but filmmakers then had a special fondness for protagonists who are morally or emotionally compromised to the point that they can’t play by the usual rules even if they want to and try. Harry Moseby is more devoted to maintaining his romantic self-image than he is to his job or his marriage. He has a singular handicap for a detective. He refuses to see things as they really are. If he did, he’d have too see himself for what he is.
Harry is a fraud. His marriage troubles are due to his having created a false second self that he expects his wife to love, admire, and deal with as if it’s actually him.
The problem, though, isn’t that she refuses to see him as a hero. It’s that she doesn’t need to see him that way to love him. The man she’s cheating on Harry with is a scaled-down version of Harry or, more precisely, Harry without the pretenses. He’s balding in the same way as Harry but unlike Harry he doesn’t hide it with a ridiculous comb-over. He doesn’t have Harry’s aggressively macho mustache either. And, a little too symbolically for Harry’s comfort, he has a bum leg too, but he uses a cane to compensate and not a corny career as a make-believe hero.
There’s more psychology than plot in Night Moves. The case is itself the McGuffin. The real mystery Harry has to solve is that of his own existence. Night Moves is existential noir. The question is can Harry face up to the sordidness and junkiness of his life?
The former starlet, now a blousy and boozy fifty-ish professional ex-wife, is selfish, bitter, grasping, and manipulative, a living parody of all the millionaire clients whose cases the heroes should reject out of hand in the detective films Harry loves, and Harry ought to see right away that she’s nobody he should get mixed up with. The way Harry is most like his movie detective heroes is that he’s as easily fooled by his own romanticism and misapplied principles as they are. They just happen to travel in worlds where that’s an ennobling idealism rather than a pathetic blindness.
It’s clear from the get-go that the former starlet doesn’t want her daughter back. She wants her daughter’s money back. Her rich ex-husband arranged for the family fortune to be kept out of her hands and she’s living off a trust that’s in the girl’s name.
But by this point Harry needs this case to prove to himself and his wife he is what he wants to believe he is. He ignores what ought to be obvious and leaves the former starlet’s mansion telling himself he has two damsels in distress to rescue.
An anti-aesthetic in the cinematography, lighting, costuming, and make-up intended as the visual expression of gritty realism.
Some of this is just the Seventies being the Seventies. It must have been a challenge to make a roomful of hideously dressed people with bad hair look pretty, no matter how you lit it or at what angles you placed your camera. None of that essentially plastic clothing flattered anybody’s figure. And all urban landscapes were advertisements for passage of the Clean Air Act. There were no truly blue skies and all the buildings and sidewalks were grimy from car exhaust and factory smoke. And most cities had given up on maintaining themselves. In the 70s it must have been the consensus that in the near future all of life was going to be lived indoors in suburban rec rooms and shopping malls, so why bother fixing anything else.
There isn’t a lot of pretty photography in Seventies movies because there wasn’t much that was pretty to photograph. It’s no wonder so many period pictures were made.
But it was also the case that there was a general rejection of the movie making cliches of the Fifties and Sixties up until 1967, one of which was the inclusion of lots of pretty pictures for the sake of pretty pictures.
Influenced by European movies, and French New Wave films particularly, younger or would be hip directors set out to make their movies look life not art. They went out of their way to avoid shots that looked carefully composed and lit. The idea wasn’t to avoid pretty pictures entirely. The trick, though, was to make those pretty pictures look like accidents or, even better, to sneak them past their audience’s intellectual defenses.
Two directors who did fill their movies with pretty pictures were, oddly, Robert Altman and, starting with Love and Death, Woody Allen. They went about it in different ways and for different reasons. Altman had learned his craft in television where the creating of pretty pictures, that is using composition for dramatic effect, was about the only way to tell a good story when working from a weak script and with less than the best actors, and Allen was paying attention to a European director who was off the Hollywood radar.
Arthur Penn, who directed Night Moves, had done Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, two films that had helped establish the anti-aesthetic of finding the beautiful in the grittily real. But both were period pieces and Bonnie and Clyde was intended as something of a visual poem (It’s theme song could have provided its title, “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.”) while Little Big Man was a parody of an epic. Night Moves is a contemporary, realistic, and psychologically intimate drama and Penn toned down the look and the pace and the sound of the film accordingly.
And there’s a thematic reason for the less than stunning visuals. Harry may see himself as a detective movie hero in the mold of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but that doesn’t mean we should see him that way. He’s just a self-deluded working stiff slogging his way through a job without glamour or romance or spiritual reward. To include anything like the artfully composed shots that fill Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and retain that theme would have required making Night Moves as a parody.
Harry’s delusions of romantic grandeur are meant to be a point of sympathy between him and us. One way or another, Night Moves is telling us, we’re all victims of the movies. We all want to see ourselves as being grander and more heroic than we actually are. We want our lives to matter for reasons beyond simply that life as it is is all we’ve got to work with. But when you get down to it, we’re all just working stiffs trying to get by in a sordid and junky world and maybe we’d be better off if we’d just face up to that.
Harry would be, at any rate.
But the anti-aesthetic is at work in more than just the casualness of the cinematography. Night Moves uses the deliberate ugliness of the Seventies to deglamorize everybody and everything Harry comes in contact with. Night Moves features two leading female characters who are made to look older and plainer than the actresses playing them really were by their characters’ individualized surrenders to prevailing fashion trends of the day.
Susan Clark plays Harry’s wife Ellen as a woman grimly determined to do what she wishes Harry would do, admit defeat by time and circumstance. She sees herself for what she is and dresses accordingly, a middle-aged business woman, past worrying about her lost youth, but for professional reasons needing to present a together look to the world. She opts for a too short Liza Minelli in Cabaret bob that emphasizes the sharpening angles of her face and boxy Mary Tyler Moore pants suits that hide the few curves she has. It’s a desexualized look that suggests that her affair with Harry’s unromanticized doppelganger is, as she tells him, not about sex. This doesn’t comfort Harry at all because the implication is that what she wants from Harry isn’t sex either. She thinks she’s asking him to grow up. He thinks she’s rushing them both into a comfortable but joyless and dull old age.
Warren’s character, Paula, the movie’s laid-back femme fatale, prefers jeans and sweatshirts and wears her hair girlishly long, a college student look she’s now, in her mid-thirties, getting too old to pull off. It doesn’t help that she’s spent the last few years working fishing charters off the Florida Keys and her skin has suffered for it---Penn and his make-up designer have Warren looking realistically weather-beaten. Considering where she is and what she does for a living, it’s not as though she has much of a chance or any reason to doll herself up. But it’s not just her sun-scarred skin and that she dresses like a kid that call attention to her not being a kid anymore. It’s her insistence on acting like one in not having to account for or control her moods and whims. Paula and Harry quickly develop an agreement. She’ll pretend he’s what he wishes his wife would see him as, if he’ll pretend she’s still the pretty bohemian college girl she used to be. Of course, this means that once again Harry’s not seeing what he needs to see.
But the most representative example of the Seventies anti-aesthetic is in the casting of Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby.
Hackman’s stardom is emblematic of a decade that also made leading men out of two other middle-aged character actors, Walter Matthau and George C. Scott, not to mention short, goofy-looking younger actors who seemed to be headed for careers as character actors before the anti-aesthetic applied itself to male leads and turned Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino into credible rivals for roles that would in a different time and universe normally have gone without anybody giving it a second thought to Robert Redford, George Segal, or Warren Beatty.
Considering the direction he took his career, Hackman might seem in retrospect to have been an odd choice to play a hardboiled detective hero, and so that would seem to have been the point. But Hackman was a star because of his Oscar-winning performance as one of the toughest and most hardboiled detectives in movie history, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. He’d recently played the self-sacrificing hero of The Poseidon Adventure. I have a habit of thinking of Hackman as one of those guys who was born fifty years old, so it was a bit jolting to hear him reply when Paula asks Harry his age, “Forty.” But Hackman was only forty-five himself at the time, still a good-looking and somewhat youthful guy, and he was big enough and in good enough shape to pass for a former professional athlete. He wasn’t a Clint Eastwood or a Steve McQueen, but considering that two of the most popular movie detectives of the first half of the decade had been played by Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, he was far from the most off-beat casting that Penn could have managed.
What makes Hackman so right for the part is his not quiteness. Obviously he was no Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford or Warren Beatty. He was also not a Burt Reynolds, a James Caan, a Ryan O’Neal, a George Segal, or an Elliott Gould. He was a leading man but not quite in the handsome and dashing movie star tradition. Like Nicholson and Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, he was that relatively new phenomenon, the character actor as leading man. But because of his size and his ordinariness, as opposed to the other’s quirkiness and eccentricities, he was not quite one of them either.
Harry Moseby is not quite what Harry wants and needs to be. No matter what he does on the job, no matter how many Paulas fall for his act and into bed with him, no matter how many cases he solves, when he looks into a mirror he’s never going to see a movie detective hero staring back, just as no matter how many times Gene Hackman played a leading man he was never going to look at movie screen where one of his films was playing and see a conventional movie star up there.
The difference, of course, is that Hackman was just fine with that and built a great career on it.
Every time Harry looks in a mirror it’s a blow that shivers him to the core of his being.
At least one gratuitous nude scene usually involving a starlet you don’t recognize because the nude scene turned out to be a career killer.
Actually the reason you might not recognize her is that Melanie Griffith was astonishingly young at the time. She had just turned eighteen when Night Moves was released, which means she was a minor when she filmed her nude scenes, and unless there was a body double for one of those scenes, I don’t know how Penn got away with shooting it without the vice squad coming after him. I’m also not sure how the studio avoided an X rating. Here’s the scene. Not safe for work.
Griffith plays Delly, the former starlet’s runaway daughter, and her gratuitous nudity is justified by Delly’s being in furious rebellion against her mother. Her aggressive sexuality is her weapon and her defense. She has figured out that if she is quick to get naked she wins in one of two ways. Either the man is so shocked and thrown by her age---Delly is sixteen---that he runs away or he is so taken by her beauty that his brain melts. One way, she wins by getting left alone, the other way, she wins by gaining total control.
Harry frustrates her and enrages her by doing neither. He doesn’t run and he doesn’t give in. What Delly doesn’t know is that Harry is pretending. He’s not reacting to her either way because Philip Marlowe wouldn’t react either way. Delly does intuit that Harry’s resisting at least in part to impress Paula and that spurs Delly to compete with Paula and so we get the skinny dipping scene. But more than she’s frustrated and enraged by Harry’s seeming indifference to her charms, she’s driven crazy by his refusal to listen to her about why she doesn’t want to go back to her mother. Harry is so intent on his own act that he can’t see Delly apart from the role she plays in his personal drama. As far as he’s concerned she’s a lost little girl who needs to be rescued from herself. He misses the fact that she’s already pretty much rescued herself and that by forcing her to go home he’s putting her back into the awful situation she needed to be rescued from.
“Realistic” violence that borders on sadism and nihlism.
There isn’t a lot of violence in Night Moves but what there is is all personal and its brutality comes from its psychic force more than its physical effect.
Whether Harry gives a beating or takes a beating, it’s his soul that suffers the bruises and it’s his enraged ego that’s delivering the blows. No wonder that punches and flesh wounds that his movie heroes would have shrugged off hurt so much. The pain and injury are inflicted by a symbolism wielded like a blunt instrument.
A punch in the snoot paints Harry’s nose red with blood in a way that makes him look like a clown just when he’s come to the realization that he’s been played for a fool. A bullet wound to the leg rivets him to the deck of a boat but it’s clear that what’s crippled isn’t his leg but his will.
Then there’s the way the movie handles death.
Important characters are killed off with a spiritually sickening matter of factness and suddenness. They don’t need to die either. I mean that the story doesn’t require that any of one of them die and die when and how they do for the movie to work. Basically, they’re just sort of squashed like bugs because they’re in the way. That’s not literally how they die but it is close. The point is that their meaningless and degrading deaths are of a piece with their lives. Their existence or non-existence has ultimately had no meaning. An upbeat way of putting this is that life has only the meaning you give to it. But that depends on the meaning you are trying to give it. Harry has been trying to give his life meaning, it just isn’t sticking.
And then there’s the fact that if your life has only the meaning you give it, its meaning ceases the second you do.
Death isn’t just the end of a life. It’s the erasure of that life. As soon as people die they disappear from the past as well as from the future.
Happy ending or even an at least emotionally conclusive ones intentionally thwarted.
Somewhat of a spoiler alert, although since Night Moves is a Seventies movie you already know that the ending is going to be morally or dramatically ambiguous, probably both.
Harry solves the case but not in a way that he can be proud of or take any satisfaction in and the last shot of the movie lets us know in a symbolically obvious way that Harry has spent his life traveling in circles and that’s not about to change for him.
Related Mannion re-runs:A post that requires you to accept that I can do a passable impersonation of Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
Books to read to tell if I’m just making it all up about the Seventies: