Directed by Arthur Penn
A film noir with shades of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Night Moves is a Los Angeles-based detective story in which the private eye hero finds himself in over his head in a convoluted plot wherein nothing is as it seems. In contrast with those other two films, with finales that may not answer every question but answer enough of them, Night Moves only raises more questions as it goes long, right until the final shots of the film. It’s a story that becomes almost comic in its confusion, suggesting that the ever-unfolding mystery is a cosmic constant in the world, not to be understood but just accepted. It all builds to one of the more exciting final moments in a film I’ve seen in a long time.
Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a small time private eye in Los Angeles hired by an aged movie star, with thinly veiled visions of seducing him, to track down her daughter, Delly. Only sixteen, Delly’s trust fund is her mother’s only source of income, but to keep receiving it, she must have her daughter living with her.
Harry will begin tracking her down, going through a mechanic, a stuntman and the girl’s stepfather but he does so halfheartedly at first. Things take some time to develop because Harry discovers that his wife is having an affair and rather than confronting her, he goes about tailing the other man, whether just to torture himself further or to build a case in preparation for a divorce he’s not yet sure he wants.
When the search for Delly takes Harry out to the Florida Keys, it becomes a welcome respite from his troubled home life in Los Angeles. Once in Florida he quickly comes across Delly, living with her stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and a woman named Paula (Jennifer Warren), whose connection to Tom and Delly is unknown.
Delly is a troublesome flirt, troublesome because she’s only sixteen, and Tom seems an affable drunk. That leaves Paula as the person of some interest, if only because she’s the only obvious candidate to be the “femme fatale,” a character as ingrained to the film noir genre as the private eye himself.
Paula, however, doesn’t seem the type. She’s kind in a way these characters often aren’t, and she and Harry share conversation over the types of things you’d find in a Richard Linklater movie rather than a murder mystery. I say murder because soon the story explodes, and characters begin dropping like flies.
The first unexpected twist, though maybe not a twist so much as a general occurrence, comes when Paula, Delly and Harry come across the sunken remains of a small plane crash. Inside is the body of someone we’ve surely already met, and it turns out to be the stuntman Harry came across early in his investigation.
The sighting is enough to frighten Delly and have her insist that Harry take her back to Los Angeles, something she had previously fought against. After a romantic, but odd, night with Paula, Harry and Delly return to Los Angeles, and soon after she dies unexpectedly, the passenger in a stunt vehicle on a movie set. The car is driven by the movie’s stunt coordinator, Harry’s friend, a Johnny Cash-looking man named Joey (Edward Binns).
Joey seems torn apart by the accident, film of which exists and is shown to Harry. Partially to assuage his friend and partially because he’s inclined to think suspiciously of events like these, Harry is sure that the car was tampered with by a mechanic, Quentin (James Woods), one of Delly’s former flings.
When Harry learns from Quentin that it was the stuntman, Marv, who was the dead pilot in the water off the Florida Keys, he returns to pay Tom and Paula visit. When he arrives there Quentin has him beat, but he’s also just a dead body floating in their dolphin pen. Harry then finds Paula and Tom fixing a boat to go out and retrieve a smuggled treasure which lies at the bottom of the plane with Marv. This sets up what would seem to be the tense climax of the film, bringing together every loose end and clearing the deck once and for all, good over here and evil over there.
But holy sh*t is a lot revealed and further mystified in these last ten or fifteen minutes. It leads to a showdown that isn’t really much of a showdown because our hero is relatively helpless, and he’s fighting an unknown antagonist who reveals himself to be perhaps the last person you’d expect.
When the credits role you’re as lost as Harry is in the final shot, looking through a glass plate down into the sea in which another character, trapped, floats down to the bottom of the ocean to die. Even if everything else before this has only further complicated the plot, the final moment is remarkable clear, emphasizing the emotion of Harry’s cluelessness over anything else. You share in his grief, even if it’s not the grief for a person but for watching your view of the world die before your eyes. Nothing makes sense, and that’s the point.
Night Moves isn’t just a psuedo-intellectual statement about the world. It’s also quite hilarious, with a certain amount of meta commentary on the genre and on the general antagonistic nature of the narrative fiction. These are some of my favorite lines, out of context:
“Who’s winning?” “Nobody. One side is just losing slower than the other.”
“What happened to your face?” “I won second prize in a fight.”
“Do you ask these questions because you wanna know the answer or is it just something you think a detective should do?”
Up Next: Crumb (1994), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Night of the Living Dead (1968)