Gene Hackman in Night Moves (1975)


(director: Arthur Penn; screenwriter: Alan Sharp; cinematographer: Bruce Surtees; editor: Dede Allen; cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Edward Binns (Joe Ziegler), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby), Janet Ward (Arlene Iverson), James Woods (Quentin), John Crawford (Tom Iverson), Melanie Griffith (Delly Grastner), Harris Yulin (Marty Heller), Anthony Costello (Marv Ellman); Runtime: 99; Warner Bros.; 1975)
“A seminal modern noir work from the 1970s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A seminal modern noir work from the 1970s about an innocent and lost soul making his way among liars and thieves, in this hauntingly reflective piece on America in the post-Watergate period. This moody tale done in a bland Technicolor is about an ex-pro football star and now a small-time private investigator named Harry Moseby (Hackman). He is obsessed with always trying to solve things, whether in business or in his private life. Harry is shattered to learn that his wife Ellen is cheating when he spots her outside a movie theater with her lover. Harry has just been hired by an aging, big chested, former actress and sexually liberated divorcee, Arlene Iverson, to find her runaway teenage daughter, Delly Grastner (Melanie’s screen debut). Arlene is not interested in her daughter, but needs her living with her because that’s the way it’s stipulated in her daughter’s trust fund.

Harry had searched his entire life to find his father. At last when he found him living in a rooming house in Baltimore, all he could do is follow him into the park and watch from a distance as he read the funnies, never even attempting to meet him.

Harry uses his job to get away from his home problems. He begins to track down Delly through her freaky friend Quentin. He’s an ace mechanic but a troubled individual who was one of Delly’s many lovers, until he was jilted. He steers Harry to a film location in New Mexico where she was involved with a self-absorbed stunt pilot, a stud named Marv Ellman. From Joe Ziegler, an older stuntman on the set, Harry figures out that Delly probably went to the Florida Keys to live with her stepfather Tom Iverson, who is running an airplane charter service there.

At Tom’s place, Harry becomes attracted to his mistress, Paula (Warren), a sad-eyed, despondent but attractive woman, who seems to be just as much a burnout as is Harry. Through her, he finds the nymphomaniac Delly living in one of Tom’s fishing cabins and talks the reluctant girl into going back with him. But Delly, while diving, finds a crashed plane in the water and identifies the body as Ellman’s, without telling who it is to Harry. Without realizing it, Harry has stepped into a murder cover-up.

Warning: spoiler to follow. Skip to last paragraph if you don’t want to know the details of Harry’s investigation.

Soon after Delly is returned to her L.A. home she dies on a film location while doing a car stunt, one in which Joe Ziegler also gets badly injured. Harry has already been paid and the case is over for him, but he can’t let it go. He empathizes with Delly, feeling they are both loners who can’t fit into normal society and he wants to know why she was killed. He suspects murder and that Quentin, who is the mechanic on the movie set, rigged the car. Harry ignores his own family situation and goes on his own to see Tom again. He soon discovers there is a smuggling racket of pre-Colombian art taking place that involves Tom and Paula, which they kept secret from him. When Tom gets killed after a vicious assault on Harry, there is a terrific surprise awaiting Harry when he finds out who the third smuggler is. All the smugglers are killed in a horrible fashion, but Harry is left stuck in the ocean as his boat keeps going around in circles in the same spot where he fought off the smuggler in an airplane who was attacking him.

This is arguably the best film that Arthur Penn has ever done. The acting is thoughtfully and purposefully carried out. The character study of the Gene Hackman character shows someone who has lost control of his life and all the knowledge he gains because of his curiosity and persistence, still leaves him feeling like a lost soul. Hackman’s characterization is superb. This excellently scripted film by Alan Sharp, who captures the mood of the country at the time when many dissidents survived Vietnam, the JFK assassination and the White House scandal; but, who still felt weary and uncertain about the future. It seems as if no matter what some people do or how smart they become (like Harry), they are still going around in circles. It is sort of like playing the Grand Master in chess and you know what move to trap him, but you still screw up somehow and lose.