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Night Moves (Blu-ray Review)

18 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’
Stars Gene Hackman, Susan Clark Jennifer Warren, Edward Binns, Melanie Griffith.

The precipitous falloff in director Arthur Penn’s career after 1975's Night Moves is something that has never been adequately explained to me, but the feeling of mood here — and this is far more mood piece than whodunit or even a “what exactly even happened?” — proves that he still had it in 1975 half-a-decade after the Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant and, if you like, Little Big Man glory years.

Full of dialogue that still crackles, it is definitely buoyed by (appropriate verbiage given its dominant Florida Keys setting) screenwriter Alan Sharp’s rejoinders and a Gene Hackman performance that now seems to be among his most definitive. Even so, the picture is still relegated to cult status, which is another way of saying it flopped at the time (Jaws opened nine or 10 days later, so good luck on that one when it came to mass ocean-faring entertainment). In fact, I’m all but certain that I gave the picture its belated inside-the-Beltway Washington, D.C., premiere when I was programming the AFI Theater back in the pre-Metro days when Warner releases relegated to outside the Beltway were along the lines of John Wayne going especially retro in The Train Robbers and Cahill — U.S. Marshall. This said, Warner looks to have spent some green knocking their print digitally back into shape, and the Blu-ray definitely captures the soft watery subtleties of Bruce Surtees’s cinematography.

A former NFL player now turned private eye in L.A. retirement, Hackman’s Harry Moseby is eking out a living as his estranged wife (Susan Clark) is straying some with an apparently decent guy who’s nothing like him (Harris Yulin walking with a cane and with his living room wall jammed with art work). Hired by a beyond-blowsy mother to find her runaway jailbait daughter (Melanie Griffith) who’s developing mom’s lousy taste in men, Hackman/Harry tracks the latter to the Keys where she’s in some kind of a Swinging ’70s relationship with her stepfather (one of those guys who looks like a heart attack about to happen) — even though he already has a live-in (Jennifer Warren) on the premises. Actually, step-pop has gotten in over his head and would just as soon Griffith leave, though he defends his sexual behavior by saying, “You’ve seen her; there oughta be a law.” To which Hackman replies, “There is.” Perfect.   

The film’s mystery part is further complicated by a continuing litany of Griffith male stragglers, including not prominently billed then newcomer James Woods — cast as a sleazy stunt-plane mechanic but possibly only a chump. This was back in the days long before the real-life Woods began going around more bends, politically speaking, than Johnny Mack Brown and Charles Starrett in any 30 grade-‘Z’ Westerns. The stunt dimension has to do with the story’s occasional movie-set milieu and a coordinator (Edward Binns) who’s a Hackman buddy. I remember that when we screened Moves upstairs in the small and private AFI screening room before we showed it to the general public downstairs, Binns’s daughter got word and asked to come (which she did). Maybe she lived inside the Beltway.

A lot of the story has to do with Hackman’s spotty attempt to exorcise personal demons, which is probably why a lot of people expecting a simple corpse pile-up (though this they also get) may not have had their expectations met. But this is another of those genre pictures that plays like another final word on ’60s and ’70s disillusionment as typified by assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate. In real life, Penn had not only been close to both Kennedys — but had been on the scene when the Israeli athletes were slain at the 1972 Olympics (filming his portion of the following year’s anthology doc Visions of Eight). Possibly it was all this social turmoil that took something off the filmmaker’s game, just as it did to John Frankenheimer before his rebirth as a TV-movie director in his fruitful final years. The finale here, set up to be cathartic, is anything but — which isn’t what audiences soon set up to hear Jimmy Carter say “I’ll Never Lie to You” likely had on their wish lists.

But organic film history is about changing critical fortunes and revisionist redemption, so one finds it easy to see why film historian Danny Peary likes Night Moves a whole big bunch and gave Hackman one of his head-on-straight best actor nominations in his provocative Alternate Oscars book. And in a movie that favors casting dexterity over big-name marquee value, Warren and Janet Ward (as Griffith’s booze-for-breakfast mom and former actress who never even made it appreciably as a ‘B’-movie queen) really put idiosyncratic spins on their roles; I’ve never forgotten, for one thing, the odd rhythms of Warren’s vocal cadences. Result: a nags-at-you endeavor that’s plenty idiosyncratic just on its own.

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