Sunday, November 30, 2014

Night Moves

One of Gene Hackman's strengths as an actor is the rough, dogged determination he imbues his characters. Whether he's playing a New York City narcotics detective on the trail of a heroin dealer or an Indiana high school basketball coach leading his team through a state tournament, Hackman has granted a number of films authority and credibility with his presence.

Night Moves (1975), directed by Arthur Penn, finds Hackman once again as a detective, this time a private investigator on the trail of a has-been Hollywood actress's runaway daughter (a teenaged Melanie Griffith, not that that stops her from getting undressed fairly frequently), and he discovers things aren't as cut-and-dry as they appear to be. That's a similar setup to many film noirs over the years, dating back to the genre's golden period in the 1940s and 1950s. Hackman's PI, retired football player Harry Moseby, fashions himself as one of those old-time PIs like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe: he has his own office, prefers his independence to working for a company, talks tough, doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, and doesn't like being played the fool by anyone. When he realizes there's some serious monkey business going on with this case, he won't rest until he gets to the bottom of it.

However, there is a difference between Moseby and those other detectives: he never really figures anything out. People wind up dead for reasons he can't quite grasp, and in the film's valedictory image, a wounded Moseby, stranded on a boat out on the ocean, can only circle endlessly, a metaphor for his ineffectiveness. Night Moves resembles Robert Altman's The Long Good Bye more than it does Roman Polanski's Chinatown; it's almost a parody of the detective genre by showing just how out of touch and outdated these old gumshoes really are, and Hackman's grit only enhances the point. Instead of getting closer to the truth, Moseby keeps missing it.

I can't say I blame Moseby. I don't think I can properly explain what happens or why. The film moves back and forth between Los Angeles and Florida as Moseby tracks down new leads, characters die in "accidents," and one character, a greasy and sleazy mechanic named Quentin (James Woods), has motive and opportunity to kill someone, but is he a killer or a fall guy? There's also business about the underbelly of Hollywood, what women have to do to make it in Tinseltown, coverups involving stuntmen, and some business involving smuggling.

I'm sure if I watched the film three or four more times and took careful notes, I could piece everything together, but at least I don't share the same distraction Moseby has. This private eye, a professional who makes it his business to know other people's business, discovers his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). Can you imagine the wife of a detective played by Humphrey Bogart cheating on him? Moseby tries to be the tough, hard-bitten detective of the Bogart mold, but he's not as good at it, professionally or personally.

Night Moves is classified as neo-noir, so it is a more modern take on the film genre. While there is the usual paranoia and oh-what-a-cruel-world vibe running through it as well as the sexual perversions of its characters (now discussed instead of just being hinted at), Night Moves doesn't rely on deep, dark shadows or gritty, urban corruption for its setting. Many scenes occur during the day, often on a boat or dock, and out in the open. Without the cover of literal darkness, one can see just how lost and alone Moseby really is.

No comments:

Post a Comment