*SPECIAL NOTE: Night Moves is playing Sunday 11/16 and Tuesday 11/18 as part of the Arthur Penn retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. Visit anthologyfilmarchives.org for more info
screened June 23, 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken NJ
Arthur Penn’s contribution to the mid-70s Hollywood revival of film noir reflects all of the bitter disillusionment and vertiginous, disempowering truth borne by the fallout of Watergate on American society. An unheroic, deeply flawed private eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) tries to bring a missing girl to safety, only to be led down a rabbit hole that collapses upon him by the end. Penn strikes a atmosphere of 70s coastal sun-baked laid backness hosting a legion of jive-talkers and hangers-on, and concealing a conspiracy both geometrically simple and shockingly unfathomable. Through this wasteland walks Hackman, in what would be a career performance if he didn’t have so many others worthy of the term. Feeding off a lively, colorful ensemble (including early performances by teenage Melanie Griffith and an unhinged James Woods) and blessed by Alan Sharp’s zinger-laden dialogue, Hackman toils with a latent sense of professionalism that eventually is consumed by pride into a self-destructive, onanistic reckoning with his own ineffectuality in a world that offers no safe harbor to his private anguish and confusion. Sharp’s intricate plotting unravels like a Rube Goldberg, with an ending that ties up loose ends so neatly that it resembles something of an oneiric projection of Moseby’s worst fears come true.
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Original Theatrical Trailer:
Link to memorable quotes on IMDb
Released in 1975, near the end of Arthur Penn’s most productive period (which began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde), this haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life. Gene Hackman plays an LA detective tracking a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith in her screen debut) to the Florida Keys while evading various problems of his own involving his father and his wife. The labyrinthine mystery plot and pessimistic mood suggest Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and like them screenwriter Alan Sharp has more than conventional mystery mechanics on his mind. One of Penn’s best features; his direction of actors is sensitive and purposeful throughout.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
A truly enigmatic thriller and a key film of the ’70s, brilliantly scripted by Alan Sharp. Hackman is the private eye torn apart from within, unable to come to terms either with his father or his errant wife, but doggedly, almost pointlessly, pursuing a wayward daughter for an equally wayward mother. Sharp’s elusive, fragmented script precisely catches the post-Watergate mood, while Penn’s direction brilliantly parallels the interior/exterior investigation. A very pessimistic film, it ends exactly at the moment that Hackman understands what has happened but can do nothing about it. Essential viewing.
– Time Out
Over the years we have come to expect our private eyes to be somewhat seedy and second-rate, beer-drinking loners with their own secrets to hide. But that seediness, as well as the decency that lurked beneath, has always been in the service of the genres. One never worried about Philip Marlowe’s mental health; one does about Harry Moseby’s. In fact, Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.
This is the only way I can explain my mixed feelings about Night Moves, which opened yesterday at Loews State 2, the Trans-Lux 85th Street, and other theaters. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), and the assorted characters he encounters in the film seem to deserve better than the quality of the narrative given them.
I can’t figure out whether the screenplay by Alan Sharp was worked on too much or not enough, or whether Mr. Penn and his actors accepted the screenplay with more respect than it deserves.
In addition to the performances of Mr. Hackman and Miss Clark, Night Moves features two others of note, by Jennifer Warren, as a beautiful, enigmatic drifter Harry meets in the Florida keys, and by Melanie Griffith, as the not-so-missing person. They all are more or less realistic, believable characters.
However, they are forced to behave and react in the completely unbelievable ways demanded of private-eye fiction, when people we know to be sensitive and caring can walk away from a new corpse as casually as if it were a minor social indiscretion. After a while it just seems absurd.
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 12 1975
As the movie opens, he is summoned to the kind of client who would be completely at home in a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe story. Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) is a onetime B-movie sweater girl who married a couple of rich guys — one dead, the other ex — and must be lonely, because she greets Harry dressed as if she’s hired him to look at her breasts. Her 16-year-old daughter, Delly, has run away from home, and she wants Harry to find her, although if Harry wants to have a drink with Arlene first, that would be nice.
“Night Moves” came after a lull in Arthur Penn’s career; he and Hackman worked together in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and then Penn made “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969) and “Little Big Man” (1970). For Hackman, it was a period of astonishing work in such films as “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970), “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Conversation.” What he brings to “Night Moves” is crucial; he must be absolutely sure of his identity as a free-lance gumshoe, even while all of his craft is useless and all of his hunches are based on ignorance of the big picture. Maybe the movie is saying that the old film noir faith is dead, that although in Chandler’s words “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” when this man goes down those streets he is blind-sided by a plot that has no respect for him.
Night Moves (1975) turns the Philip Marlowe-styled detective picture on its head, following truth-seeker Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) on a labyrinthine whodunit that leads him on his own dark night of the soul. An allegory of its times, a portrait of a man succumbing to the ennui around him, Night Moves offered faint hope for filmgoers in the post-Watergate era. A mystery that grows in proportion to the moral weakness of its main interlocutor, the film ends in vertigo: a maimed Moseby, endlessly circling the waters on an unmanned boat, totally lost at sea. “Harry Moseby’s inability to understand his own problems, to discover his own identity, leads to his inability to recognize that the problem—the case he has been hired to solve—doesn’t actually concern him,” Penn explained to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 1977.
– Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin, adapted from the introduction to Arthur Penn Interviews, edited by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (University Press of Mississippi, November 2008), republished on The Moving Image Source
Night Moves (1975), perhaps Penn’s most underrated picture, emerges today as, in Phil Hardy’s words, “A key film of the ’70s” (15), and arguably the bleakest (certainly after The Chase) of the director’s career. Perhaps the best way to view it now is as the dark Yang to the much lighter Yin of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Both films have a comparable project: to take apart and in some ways reinvent the hard boiled private eye popularised in the novels of Chandler and Hammett and in the screen adaptations of their work (The Maltese Falcon , Farewell, My Lovely , The Big Sleep  etc). However, where Altman (actually adapting a Chandler novel) re-imagines Philip Marlowe as a shambling, anachronistic, laid-back bum in the bright lights of modern Los Angeles, playing fast and loose with the surface style and iconography of the character whilst keeping the ideals more or less intact, Penn and writer Alan Sharp take a journey deep inside the genre archetype (played by Gene Hackman), finding in him a bitterness, an emptiness and, typically for Penn, an obsessive compulsion to pursue a course of action that leads not to redemption but to damnation. They also overturn genre conventions in giving the PI a wife and an errant father, as well as (logically) a life outside of his profession.
– Adam Bingham, from his Great Directors biography of Penn for Senses of Cinema
Detective films are about seeing, about perceiving and discerning. The success of the detection depends on how clearly things are seen and how secure the point of view of the perceiver is. Harry sees, but he has no point of view, no moral position from which to act on what he sees. Images in the film are continually reflected, often by distorting surfaces; Harry is observed, or observes, through screens and windows. Much of the central part of the film, Harry’s visit to Florida, where he attempts to find and return his client’s runaway daughter, Delly, and discovers a complex smuggling operation, is filmed in darkness and empty spaces. The cutting of the film does not permit sequences to complete themselves. A new scene may be entered within the dialogue of the previous one carried over, so that no comfortable continuity between narrative units is allowed. The viewer is given no more security of structure, no fuller sense of subjective certainty, no more certain sense of clear perception than is the character (a strategy similar to what Penn does in Mickey One)… However, the form does not function merely to make the viewer share Harry’s darkness and despair, but to indicate the difficulties of seeing and knowing clearly anything about anyone.
Night Moves seems almost inevitable in Penn’s career. In film after film he had attempted to maneuver the spirit of life against the repressive order and laws of society that bring death or diminishment to those who move against them. He had contented himself not with an attempt to understand the peculiarly American variety of the politics of repression and the attempts to struggle against it, but with the emotional power of the struggle itself, and reaped from his audience the emotional profit that seems always to come from being witness to the death of vitality, from the reaffirmation that we are lost and helpless. But in Night Moves the profit of loss seems to have run out. Harry Moseby is emotionally dead from the beginning. He does not so much entangle himself in the oppression of others as merely sink deeper into his own and their moral vacuum. There is not even the external force of authority to fight against as there is in the earlier films.
– Robert Phillip Kolker, from A Cinema of Loneliness, Oxford University Press, pages 55, 57
Night Moves is about switching appearances; even the title is an evasion. It should be ‘knight moves’ – Chess fan Harry shows Paula a fateful chess showdown involving “three little knight moves” that spelled doom for a famous player. But the player never saw it coming, and felt guilty about it ever since. Harry’s true nature shows when he admits that he feels guilty about the players’ defeat, even though he wasn’t even born when it happened. Paula picks up on this, and relates Harry’s sense of chivalric regret to the Kennedy assassination: “Which Kennedy?” “Any Kennedy.”
Alan Sharp’s terrific screenplay is one of the best thriller-traps ever laid out and one that will hit viewers like a ton of bricks provided some DVD reviewer doesn’t spoil it. The smart hardboiled dialogue contains a number of great zingers (Harry: “All Harry knows is that if you call him Harry one more time he’s going to make you eat that cat”) and at least one saying that’s entered the language intact — Harry confesses that for him, “Watching an Eric Rohmer film is like watching paint dry.” The line isn’t just a cynical joke. Harry hates introspection even in movies. He even admits he doesn’t have the standard ‘eye graphic’ on his business card. He keeps addressing his problems like a football player, going straight for the goal when he should be peering into himself.
– Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk
Certainly, on the surface, Night Moves seems to contain enough popular elements to insure box office success. It’s a well acted, beautifully paced mystery with an intriguing story line, gritty action, illicit sex, memorable villains and exotic locales. Why, then, did the audience resolutely stay away from this movie? Why, even now, is it considered in many quarters a neglected gem?
Perhaps the answer lies underneath that shimmering surface, deep in the damaged psyche of its central character, in Harry Moseby’s troubled private eye. Perhaps, even in 1975, the mainstream audience still wanted its heroes to resemble the ones they grew up with, the stoic American male vanquishing the dark forces of treachery. Like Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973, another exemplary film that achieved little box office success) Moseby represents both an homage to the hard-boiled film noir heroes of the fifties, and a repudiation of them. Clearly, Penn and Sharp are not interested in simply updating the traditional private eye to modern L.A. Instead, they transform a prototype – the grizzled but always triumphant gumshoe – into a more recognizable man: they dare to show his vulnerability. And perhaps this is what the audience rejected. Who could imagine Sam Spade as a husband, much less one who discovers his wife in bed with another man?
– Tim Applegate, kamera.co.uk
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.
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… Hackman’s sulky belligerence and sense of bruised dignity make Moseby an entirely authentic character… 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.
– Nat Turnbridge, DVD Times
As Harry gropes through Night Moves ’byzantine plot in as unknowing a way as he deals with his emotional tumult, the ‘quest’ metaphor of the investigator is doubled back to reflect his inner state. Night Moves is riddled with depictions of a seeing that is compromised, of vision that is mediated: through James Woods’ welding goggles early on, repeatedly through the different lenses in the windows of Harry’s home to underline his domestic fragmentation, and in the brilliant climactic sequence with numerous shots of a circling plane seen looking into the sun and thus blinding the viewer, rendering the act of looking as totally counterproductive – a conclusive metaphor for Harry’s whole experience.
– Roger Westcombe, Big House Film Reviews
Like a handlebar-mustachioed Antonioni, Penn seems uncommonly poised to the changes that can damage a person’s hold on their environment. When Moseby first ventures out to Florida – partly to avoid having to deal with his wife’s infidelity, partly to track down missing daughter-of-Hollywood Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith) –, he finds an idyll wound in place like a coiled spring. Returning home with the girl seems to only u-haul the tension, dumping her in the middle of a barely suppressed hysteria that catalyses her death. Awash in the faint trauma of a headache, Moseby then has to pick at the clots of half-surfaced motives, fingering his way through a case where human detail outweighs the burn for causality, and our snarling fetishisation of sex, death and youth only triangulate into tragedy.
– David Levinson, The Lumiere Reader
Kim Morgan, Sunset Gun: “This doggedness of not tying up its mysteries in one tidy bow makes Penn’s Night Moves all the more meaningful, its pessimism (and amidst all the oppressive sunlight) all the more complicated.”
Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict
Director Arthur Penn and actor Gene Hackman were filming Night Moves in Philip Kaufman’s house when Kaufman was arrested for the theft of country-rock legend Gram Parsons’ body..
In a memorable scene, Paula (Jennifer Warren) tells Harry that the first boy who ever touched her breasts was named Billy Dannreuther. That’s the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in Beat the Devil (1953).
– submitted by Kevin Burton Smith to Thrilling Detective.com
About the Warner 2005 DVD
This image looks quite good, but also a little dated showing a very pasty appearance at times. I don’t see any manipulation, it is progressively transferred and is 16X9 enhanced. I suspect that this is exactly how the film looked theatrically. Although skin tones tend to look red, it is Florida (Sanibel island). Our protagonist in the film makes a rather disconcerting remark about one of my favorite directors (Eric Rohmer) but I’ll let that pass :).
A real noir-ish style representation that got some noted acclaim. Hackman is, as always, a great lead. I wasn’t overly impressed with the short featurette included but I suppose it was available and nothing else could be dug up. Original audio is flat and unremarkable – subtitles are excellent. A reasonably priced DVD recommended for Hackman lovers and fans of the thriller/gumshoe genre. This one is worth it!
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
Warners’ DVD of Night Moves is a most welcome addition to anyone’s disc collection. The enhanced transfer accurately reproduces the film’s slightly grainy and washed-out daytime scenes, that turn to crystal sharpness at night. Michael Small’s modest jazz score with its recurring vibraphone (?) riff is nicely presented, although on my system the music track seemed to crowd the dialogue a bit too closely – perhaps this is the original theatrical mix.
The Day of the Director is a breezy old-fashioned promo film about Arthur Penn, noted genius with actors, yet concentrates mostly on action scenes one wants to avoid before seeing the film the first time. The excellent trailer also focuses almost exclusively on action scenes.
After the floppo boxoffice of The Long Goodbye we can forgive the studio for not selling Night Moves as a detective caper. The lack of critical enthusiasm that greeted the film on release is difficult to account for. Perhaps audiences were sick of seedy films about low-key corruption, or maybe they responded negatively to the awful print campaign with its faux-Bergman tag line: “Maybe he would find the girl … Maybe he would find himself.” Night Moves does flirt with pretension once or twice (the silverware in the garbage disposal as a background to a domestic argument) but in actuality it’s one of the deepest detective movies ever made.
– Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk
About Arthur Penn
Quotes found on Arthur Penn page on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?:
“For a stage director whose work suffers from an oppressive literalness of effect, Penn has revealed a distinctive flair for the cinema. The intense physicality of the performances in his films serves to counterbalance a strained reading of lines. A director of force rather than grace, Penn may yet reassert the plastic role of the actor in the scheme of things. Be that as it may, The Left-Handed Gun remains a tribute to the director’s gifts of improvisation.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Penn is the classic example of a fine director touching his peak, wobbling a little, re-finding himself, and then going, completely off the boil…There are too few directors of Penn’s particular talent around today and it is something of a tragedy that either Hollywood, or the sum of his own particular idiosyncrasies, has let him down.” – Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)
“American director who has made an interesting variety of films, some of them very fine – but only 13 in 30 years…Since Bonnie and Clyde, Penn has not proved to be a major figure at the box office; his films are always fascinating, even exciting, in concept and casting, but sometimes lacking in fulfilment.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)
“The alienation of modern man in society, and the breaking of myths and legends are the subjects of Penn’s most effective films.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Arthur Penn has often been classed—along with Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, and Francis Coppola—among the more “European” American directors. Stylistically, this is true enough. Penn’s films, especially after Bonnie and Clyde, tend to be technically experimental, and episodic in structure; their narrative line is elliptical, under-mining audience expectations with abrupt shifts in mood and rhythm. Such features can be traced to the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the early films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, which Penn greatly admired.
In terms of his thematic preoccupations, though, few directors are more utterly American. Repeatedly, throughout his work, Penn has been concerned with questioning and re-assessing the myths of his country. His films reveal a passionate, ironic, intense involvement with the American experience, and can be seen as an illuminating chart of the country’s moral condition over the past thirty years. Mickey One is dark with the unfocused guilt and paranoia of the McCarthyite hangover, while the stunned horror of the Kennedy assassination reverberates through The Chase. The exhilaration, and the fatal flaws, of the 1960s anti-authoritarian revolt are reflected in Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant. Little Big Man reworks the trauma of Vietnam, while Night Moves is steeped in the disillusioned malaise that pervaded the Watergate era.
– Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com
Arthur Penn was, in his heyday, one of the most complex and interesting figures in American cinema. Like all great artists, his passionate involvement in what he was doing led to work that was among the most resonant and deeply felt of the time, and the (thematic and institutional) tensions on which his films are built – American versus European filmmaking, facade versus reality, instinct versus rationality – have kept that work interesting, even vital, to this day. And whilst he never created what one could refer to as ”the Arthur Penn style”, his thematic preoccupations have more than qualified him for auteur status. Criminally, only one book length study of Penn has been produced, Robin Wood’s Arthur Penn, and that has never been updated, so even if one finds a copy today it only covers his career up to Little Big Man. It is, however, a thorough study of the director, and it seems fitting to give the last word to Wood, who sums up the essence of Arthur Penn very succinctly in one short sentence: “The cinema of Arthur Penn is the cinema of ‘whole man alive’”
– Adam Bingham, from his Great Directors biography of Penn for Senses of Cinema