Released to little fanfare thirty years ago—warmly received by the more serious critics but just past the moment when it might have enjoyed broad commercial success—Night Moves, still relatively obscure, stands as one of the achievements of the 1970s, a period now widely acknowledged as Hollywood's last golden age. While the peerless Chinatown—the Citizen Kane of the seventies film—reached back so seamlessly to the great classic studio films noir of the 1940s that in memory it has almost become one of them, Night Moves remains plainly neo-noir, unambiguously of the period, visually, stylistically, and politically.
Finally available on DVD, Night Moves is a reminder of the extent to which great films depend on the unpredictable magic and serendipity of collaboration. Alan Sharp's tight, witty, and insightful script is brought to life by Gene Hackman and a pitch-perfect supporting ensemble, brilliantly orchestrated by director Arthur Penn and his team of period-pros including cinematographer Bruce Surtees and editor Dede Allen. Writer, star, and director bring their best stuff to the table, and it is hard to imagine the movie absent each of their contributions.
Hackman plays Harry Moseby, an ex-Pro-Bowl football player who now gets by, more or less, running a one-man private-eye agency. By convention, he is hired to track down the wayward daughter of a disreputable guardian, and by convention the routine investigation must disturb and uncover darker and more dangerous secrets. Against genre, however, Harry not only has a wife but finds out (by accident) that she has taken a lover, one with a limp and a cane, no less, both mocking his masculinity and depriving him of the right to square things with a good sock to the jaw. This apparent sub-plot, of Harry's troubled marriage and the riveting domestic confrontations between husband and wife (in the kitchen, in the driveway, in the bedroom), is neither a distraction nor of secondary interest, for Night Moves is ultimately about the investigator, not the investigation.
This raises the stakes considerably, because Harry Moseby is not just anybody; he is America. Stranded at the embarrassing age of forty, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, down a peg and directionless, with the hopes of the sixties long given way to the hollowness of the seventies, Harry is defined by disappointment and lost opportunity. A chess player, he passes the lonely hours of surveillance playing and reenacting classic matches on his portable set. One match he plays over and over again is from 1922: black had a mate and he did not see it. "Three little knight moves," Harry explains at one point. But he "played something else and lost. He must have regretted it every day of his life. I do, and I wasn't even born."
Writer Sharp, a Scotsman, clearly saw the movie as a vehicle to puzzle through the American enigma (though his novelization betrays a more heavy-handed critique of both character and society) as he had done with his script for the revisionist western and Vietnam allegory Ulzana's Raid for Robert Aldrich. Gently probing national myths, Harry attributes his ability to resist the advances of young nymph Delly by conjuring the pure thoughts of Thanksgiving and George Washington's teeth. More pointedly, in response to a question about the Kennedy assassination, Moseby explains, "when the President got shot I was on my way to a football game in San Diego; when Bobby got shot I was sitting in a car waiting for a man to come out of a house with his girlfriend—a divorce case." Harry states the facts and does not dwell on the point, but a more concise summary of America's fall from grace is unlikely to be found.
Certainly the sentiment did not escape the politically astute Arthur Penn, who had previously earned an Oscar nomination for directing the downbeat counter-culture classic Alice's Restaurant and also enjoyed a big hit with his revisionist western Little Big Man, a retelling of the conquest of the west from the perspective of the conquered. Penn plays with perspectives in Night...