What is it about 1970s Hollywood? I’m guessing that for younger cinephiles these films seem a very long time ago and probably not worth bothering about, apart of course from the mainstream blockbusters of the period, The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2), Jaws and Star Wars, films made by the ‘Movie Brats’. Yet for my generation there were many modestly-budgeted 1970s films from talented directors that have grown steadily in appreciation and at long last, many are now available on Blu-ray. Much of the interest is in the work of a number of directors, all of whom entered Hollywood in the 1950s or early sixties, often from television, theatre or in at least one case industrial films. Arthur Penn is one of the three ‘Ps’ whom I rate highly as bringing a new sensibility – the other two are Alan J. Pakula and Sam Peckinpah. Others in this diverse group include Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Sidney Lumet. The thing that they all shared was that they weren’t schooled in the studio system and therefore they didn’t feel constrained to make familiar studio pictures. Unlike the Movie Brats who, in some cases, were inspired by their memories of Classical Hollywood movies from the 1940s (probably seen on TV), this group’s stage and TV experience made them more adventurous and in a way more attuned to the rebellion of the 1960s and the counter-culture of the 1970s. There were others like them but I don’t want to list them all here.

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) with his client Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward)

Night Moves belongs partly to a cycle of 1970s re-workings of the classic ‘private eye’ movie of the 1940s. Gene Hackman, a key actor of the early 1970s who had become a star thanks to his performance in Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), plays a private eye in Los Angeles. Hackman was not a conventional Hollywood leading man (he’s still around at 92 but now in retirement). In this film his character ‘Harry Moseby’ is an ex- pro American football player for the Oakland Raiders, now doing basic PI work but nothing glamorous. His agent finds him a job looking for a teenager who has run away from home, or perhaps more specifically from her mother, a ‘starlet’ of the late 1940s in forgettable B pictures (played by Janet Ward).

Moseby’s wife Ellen (Susan Clark)

Moseby has his own problems at home as his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), who runs an antique shop, is having an affair with an ‘arty’ type. Moseby goes to meet her at the end of a screening of Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud (France 1969), leading to the now well-known phrase “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry”. Eventually Moseby will find the girl Delly (an early role for Melanie Griffith). The film was actually shot as early as 1973 and held back, so Griffith was only sixteen. There are some semi-nude shots of her that probably would be frowned on now. Moseby’s quest takes him to a filming site in Mexico and and a boat hire and fishing business in Florida. Along the way he meets several shady characters and an extraordinary woman, Paula (Jennifer Warren). There is clearly something going on but, as several reviewers note, Moseby isn’t that quick on the uptake, though he does make it in the end. But the ending of the film is not conventional, offering a visual image which says everything about Moseby’s life and possibly, metaphorically, America in the mid-1970s as well.

Delly (Melanie Griffith)
Paula (Jennifer Warren)

This isn’t an ‘original film’, although the script by Alan Sharp is. Sharp was the Scottish writer who wrote Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand in 1971 and Robert Aldrich’s magnificent Ulzana’s Raid in 1972, as well as many other films. It’s not an ‘original film’ because there appear to have been several similar films around at the same time. The cycle started in the mid-1960s with both new and revived private eye stories based on the idea of the 1940s character as conceived by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Paul Newman appeared in the 1966 feature Harper, written by William Goldman and based on the book by Ross Macdonald. He also made The Drowning Pool in 1975, another adaptation of a Ross Macdonald novel. James Garner was the Raymond Chandler character in Marlowe (1969) and three more Marlowe revivals followed. The first was The Long Goodbye (1973) with Elliot Gould, scripted by Leigh Brackett (who also scripted the Hawks Big Sleep in 1946) and directed by Robert Altman, definitely a member of the loose grouping that included Penn. Robert Mitchum then appeared twice as Marlowe in two very different films – Dick Richards’ 1940s-set Farewell My Lovely (1975) and the execrable updating of The Big Sleep (1978) from Michael Winner. There are others, including Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), set in late 1930s Los Angeles, but the point is that the contemporary settings of most of these films show us a Chandleresque character now out of his depth and struggling to deal with 1970s America. Alan Sharp’s characterisation of Delly reminds me of Carmen, the youngest Sternwood daughter in The Big Sleep (1946) as played by Martha Vickers, throwing herself into Humphrey Bogart’s arms. (Whereas Jennifer Warren as Paula plays something like the Lauren Bacall role in The Big Sleep). There are other Marlowe traits in Moseby, including his travel chess set on which he rehearses famous moves. But of course, Hackman’s PI is not from the educated élite like the Marlowe of Chandler’s novels. He’s charming and can land a punch but he isn’t elegant, which makes him a good match for Elliot Gould’s chain-smoking and dishevelled Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

Quentin (an early role for James Woods)

What then makes Night Moves stand out? The music score by Michael Small is very good, as is the cinematography by Bruce Surtees and the editing by the great Dede Allen. The performances are mainly good too, but if I have one reservation it’s that the four men Moseby has contacts with seemed a bit interchangeable to me. It’s probably my reading/observational skills letting me down, but when the plot is as complicated as it is here, it can get confusing. On the other hand James Woods is well cast in this early role for him. Terence Donovan wrote a long essay on Penn in Movie 26, Winter 1978/9. He maintains that Night Moves is Penn’s best film and he makes a detailed study of Harry Moseby. I don’t want to engage fully with his argument here, mainly because it would mean spoiling the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but it’s worth picking out some of his sharpest observations. Donovan focuses on the information that the narrative offers us about Harry’s childhood and his lack of contact with his father. It partly explains how he relates to his wife and why she needs to find a man she can talk to about Harry. Harry is misogynistic in the way he approaches the women in the case and is therefore easily fooled by them and he also displays his homophobia. I’m not sure I buy all of Donovan’s analysis but it is worth exploring. More to the point, I think, is that Harry is an anti-hero who doesn’t really have a driving ideology apart from his embrace of what is a dying masculine supremacy. At one point he tells us that he doesn’t care about football any more. He seems to be defined only by his ageing Mustang motor and his chess set – and his ability to sling the occasional punch. There are his small gestures of rebellion but they don’t carry much conviction. The fact that he is played by the star of the film says something about 1970s America.

Harry is out of his depth

But the two defining aspects of the film for me are the dialogue, excellent throughout and the sense that this is a film made for an adult audience. These are the kinds of films that just don’t get made by contemporary Hollywood and I miss them. I noted that the boat used in Florida carries the name ‘Point of View’ which seems a cinéaste‘s touch. It also reminds me that when Kelly Reichardt made a film which pays hommage to Night Moves in 2013 she named the small boat in it ‘Night Moves’. When I posted on Reichardt’s film, I couldn’t remember much about Penn’s Night Moves, but I called it a ‘neo noir’ at some point. I’m not sure about that now. It’s something I need to think about. Too many films get termed ‘noir’ or ‘neo noir’ these days, without too much consideration. This is more like a revisionist PI movie and it is best defined by the period of its production. The Blu-ray from Warners comes with only one extra, a short study of Penn at work, but the film is definitely worth watching.