Some times, you know love a movie ten minutes in. From the opening shots of J.J. Gittes’s well-maintained (but somehow seedy and desperate) office in Chinatown, I knew I was going to love that movie. From the first bit of dialogue between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction in the diner, I knew I loved that movie. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, I may not even realize I loved a film until a day after I watched it. That’s what happened with Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. Arthur Penn’s now seminal neo-noir classic Night Moves is the definition of a slow burning film but when you reach its explosive pay-off, it’s all worth it.
Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a hell of a private detective but not much of a man in his private life. The same sure-eyed obsession that helps him always solve his cases isolates him from his wife (who’s having an affair) and any thing resembling a social life. So, all he has to look forward to is the thrill of the chase and basking in the glory days of his short-lived professional football career. When Harry gets a job trying to find the missing daughter (Melanie Griffiths) of a faded movie starlet, he finds himself thrown into a case that not only threatens to destroy the last strands of his relationship with his life but could pose a threat to his very life when it turns out that nothing is remotely what it seems.
Along with Roman Polanski/Robert Towne’s Chinatown, this was one of the most important film noir movies that established character development as key to the success of the genre. Although the Sam Spades and Phillip Marlowe’s of the world were archetypes of honor in seedy worlds, they were almost devoid actual character and depth. More time is spent exploring what makes Harry Moseby tick in this film than is spent on the actual criminal investigation in the case. In fact, the case seems almost so secondary to this film that I couldn’t put my finger on what the point was of the whole film until all of the pieces gelled together for the film’s spectacular finale.
And carrying the weight of the film’s psychological complexity is the masterful turn from Gene Hackman as the schmuck of a detective. He thinks he’s the type of honorable man that Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe turned out to be, but in reality, he’s in it for reasons as personal and self-centered as those he despises. And Hackman, who was reaching the crest of middle age, finds the world-weariness and tired edge that defines Harry as much as his marital woes and his professional tenacity. And throw in great turns from Melanie Griffiths, James Wood, and Jennifer Warren, and you have a delightfully acted film.
The film is as dark and brooding as they get, and if one thinks about the era where the film was made, the jaded cynicism and pessimism that lies at the core of the film is the perfect summation of post-Watergate angst and paranoia. The world of Night Moves is one of corruption, despair, and greed, and even the characters least touched by vice aren’t spared by the costs of the inequities of others. No one is innocent and everyone suffers. The suffering just catches up to some characters sooner or later.
I didn’t actually think I was enjoying Night Moves that much until well past the hour mark in the film. The plot meanders at a snail-like pace for a while until you realize just how perfectly the screenwriter was setting up the pieces for its denouement. But when it all comes together, you get a feel for how structurally sound a film this was and you almost get mad at yourself for questioning what has come before. Still, on a first watch, you may find yourself turned off by the film’s initial tepid pace. Let me promise you that if you invest the time in this movie, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best mystery films of the 1970s.
Final Score: A-