Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is perhaps the best film in the “Very Interesting Failures from the 70s” genre. The 70s were such a great period in American film that even the movies that don’t come together or even are really kind of bad tend to be interesting in ways that mediocre films aren’t today. Of course, Night Moves is a big step closer to a genuinely excellent film than most. In fact, I’d say “good” is appropriate. There is much to laud about it. Gene Hackman is at the height of his powers as a former NFL player who has become a private detective while his marriage falls apart. The old-school detective story draws viewers in. The dialogue is pretty snappy, even if the shot at Eric Rohmer does not please me. Melanie Griffith as the teenage runaway is terrible (Talk about how one can’t really teach someone to act. Yeesh.) but she’s hot so fulfills most of what she’s asked to do.
So I really wanted to like this movie. And much of it I did. But the plot just makes no sense. You could drive a truckload of Mayan stone carving through them. When a runaway story turns into a murder story, Penn has trouble keeping the whole thing together. Why are these people dying? It’s really unclear why a major character dies. And it’s equally unexplained why another major character is actually the one spearheading the nefarious scheme. I guess one can take it as Hackman not understanding what is going on around him because of too many concussions in the NFL or something. But whatever, the plot just does not hold together.
What’s interesting as well is how self-conscious 70s detective films were of the noir past. Robert Altman did this in The Long Goodbye, keeping Philip Marlowe as a conscientiously 40s character in a sleazy 70s world. Chinatown is a period piece. Penn brings in people making fun of Hackman, comparing him to Sam Spade and asking him if he is going to throw a punch like in the movies. The overwhelming legacy of noir I guess meant the directions didn’t feel comfortable playing this straight, which is interesting given the predominance of private detective shows during the era and through the mid 80s.
Fun fact: At least according to IMDB, the house where James Woods lives was the actual house of Gram Parsons’ road manager Phil Kaufman, who was with Parsons when he died of heroin and helped bury him in the desert near Joshua Tree. This was quite literally just before the film was shot there. In fact, when they were shooting, the cops came out to interview Kaufman. Ah, the 70s.
+1 for Hackman’s wife being played by Susan Clark, the mom from Webster. +2 for an Alex Karras reference in a film that seems to have been filmed before Clark and Karras met (on another film evidently). -2 for the anti-Rohmer attitude. Heathens. I blame L.A.