Night Moves Review

Well, here it is. Regarded by some critics as a key film of the 70s – the golden decade when the arty experimentalism of the French nouvelle vague was hijacked by a rebellious set of young American upstarts and used to produce an entirely new film-making style – the arrival of ‘Night Moves’ on DVD has been much anticipated. That it has finally made its debut on the format is to be unconditionally celebrated. However, the film itself presents a rather more complicated proposition. While boasting stellar talent both behind and in front of the camera (Hackman, Penn, Allen, Surtees) ‘Night Moves’ ends up as rather less than the sum of its parts, failing to excel either as a detective story or as an earnest character drama.

Middle-aged L.A private eye Harry Moseby is in a downward spiral. His wife Susan (Clark) is having an affair and he’s stubbornly resistant to any attempts to change his less-than-glamorous job. His problems increase exponentially when he’s hired by a faded Hollywood starlet (Ward) to find her missing sixteen-year old daughter Delly (Griffith). Learning from her one-time boyfriend Quentin (Woods) that she’s taken up with stunt man Marv Ellman (Costello), Moseby drives down to New Mexico only to learn from movie director Joey Ziegler (Binns) that the girl has fled to Florida to stay with her step-father Tom Iverson (Crawford). He finds Delly in Florida, staying with Iverson and Paula (Warren), a mysterious woman to whom he’s instantly attracted. On a night swimming expedition, they discover the wreck of a crashed plane with a body in the cockpit. Shocked, Delly agrees to return to L.A with Moseby, but the case is far from closed. As his string of contacts start turning into corpses, Moseby realises that his insistence on ‘solving the case’ may lead to his death…

To be frank, a lot of ‘Night Moves’ comes off as a rather arty and ambitious episode of the ‘Rockford Files’. For cineastes and fans of the film this may cause the same kind of shocked intake of breath that was heard coming from my mouth recently when a friend said she thought Steely Dan’s ‘Dirty Work’ sounded like incidental music to an episode of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’... yet it must be said. The film is not, at least in my eyes, the masterpiece that many make it out to be. Those key themes of the 70s – betrayal, corruption, the breakdown of families and relationships – are all in evidence but the attempts to integrate arty influences into the prosaic structure of a piece of classic detective fiction often jar badly. Sudden jump cuts, overlapping dialogue and some self-consciously laboured speeches – there are several attempts to give Moseby psychological depth by having secondary characters spout his past at him at inopportune moments – all come across as forced and inappropriate, and when the film is simply being a straightforward thriller, it’s often uninspiring.

‘Night Moves’ is at its most interesting in the Florida sequences, when Moseby’s involvement in the strange three-way relationship between Delly, Paula and Tom takes the film into more dynamic emotional territory. It’s a shame it doesn’t stay there long. Warren, as the kooky Paula is, after Hackman, the most vital presence in the film, a striking Amazonian blonde whose dry lilt gives exactly the right degree of irony to what are the film’s best lines: “I’m convalescing from a terrible childhood,” she confides seriously to Moseby early on, “My father used to blow his nose with his fingers.” Unfortunately she also has to tackle some scenes that had me laughing for the wrong reasons. For instance, on the brink of seducing Harry, Paula stands outside his house in a sexy white nightgown making herself available to his gaze, before suddenly asking with keen interest: ‘Where were you when Kennedy got shot?’ At moments like these the script’s pretensions become gratingly clear.

What ‘Night Moves’ does have is Gene Hackman, one of the greatest living American screen actors and one whose performances often raise the quality of standard fare. ‘Night Moves’ actually reminded me a lot of ‘Harper’, the mid-sixties Paul Newman vehicle, in that they’re both fairly ordinary detective films which happen to feature in their respective leads cinematic icons at the top of their game. Hackman’s sulky belligerence and sense of bruised dignity make Moseby an entirely authentic character. One instantly believes that this man was not only once a top pro-football player, but that he would stick at a lousy private detective job out of a combination of integrity and self-destructiveness. In one key scene, Harry shows Paula a series of chess moves from a classic match played in 1922 – from which the film’s deliberately ambiguous title is at least partly derived – and his understated passion implies the analogy between the player’s inability to see the checkmate coming and his own lack of insight into his own condition beautifully. It’s the kind of performance that’s simply beyond many male actors – particularly today’s elfin pretty boys – who invariably try too hard to create a ‘tough’ persona to compensate for their overweening vanity and think that ‘vulnerability’ means bursting into tears. Hackman was never a good-looking man, appearing for most of his films to resemble a depressed, slightly hung-over bear. What he brings to ‘Night Moves’ – and what he has brought to the screen over the course of four decades – is that rarest of qualities: the Real. In Hollywood, the global capital of artificiality and falseness, he is the benchmark of authenticity, representing – along with his pals Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman – a kind of cinematic gold standard, the defining expression of what ‘being a man’ meant in the 70s, namely embittered, independent, distrustful of authority and struggling – usually unsuccessfully – to achieve the degree of vulnerability needed to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. Even in the most hopeless fare (‘Prime Cut’) or risibly miscast (‘A Bridge Too Far’) Hackman manages to rise above the material and bring the film home. He pulls it off again with ‘Night Moves’. His are safe hands, artistically speaking, although if you get in his way, God help you.

Special Features
There’s just the Trailer, which it must be said, is superbly cheesy in that ‘heavy voice over’ style the 70s are famed for, and a nine-minute 4:3 promo piece called The Day of the Director. Most of this featurette centres on looking at the film’s action sequences. It’s light stuff, full of portentous comments like “Arthur Penn unwinds, but his mind keeps moving…” and doesn’t feature anything from Hackman or any of the other actors.

‘Night Moves’ was shot by Bruce Surtees, son of the legendary Robert Surtees and a cinematographer who, having shot ‘Dirty Harry’, ‘Lenny’ and a dozen other low-key 70s stand-outs could rightfully take credit for helping engender the now oft-imitated ‘gritty 70s look’. Grain, particularly in a movie with so many night scenes, is thus much in evidence here, although it never curtailed my enjoyment of the film. The colour palette – muted greys and browns for the first half, acidic yellows and bright blues in the latter – is right there and I couldn’t spot any evidence of tampering with the image. Overall the film looks pretty good considering it’s 30 years old.

Audio for ‘Night Moves’ is very basic, just single channel Dolby Digital. You can hear all the dialogue you’re meant to and Michael Small’s impressively jazzy soundtrack sounds good. There’s also a 1.0 French dub included.

It’s a little hard to see, from the perspective of 30 years, just what makes ‘Night Moves’ the 70s classic that some think it to be. Remember it came out the same year as ‘Jaws’, ‘Nashville’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘Shampoo’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, all films which embodied – in different ways – the hedonistic, experimental energy and unsentimental spirit of that decade with far more verve and flair. This DVD serves the film adequately and fans of Hackman and the 70s, like myself, will want to get it anyway, but don’t expect to discover a hidden classic, just another great performance from Gene.

7 out of 10
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