Night Moves (1975) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)


On the surface, Night Moves follows all the basic conventions of a private detective noir.

1) The protagonist is an honest, world-weary man. Harry (Gene Hackman) works hard for his clients and has a sense of decency, but never makes much money because of that pesky sense of integrity. Like all his role models from the fiction of the 30s and 40s, he does exactly what he's hired to do and in return wants only his modest per diem plus expenses.

2) The detective starts out with a simple assignment which escalates into a complex criminal conspiracy. In this case, as in so many cinema detective stories, Harry is hired for a missing persons job and ends up involved in multiple murders and smuggling.

You have to figure that it's going to be more than a superficial private eye yarn, however, because the director of the film is Arthur Penn, who is now largely forgotten but was once a highly respected director. His filmography from the sixties and seventies is short, but impressive. Even the lowest-rated film on the list is an interesting failure.

Harry is called to the swanky house of a former movie starlet. Her daughter (Melanie Griffith) is missing. Harry follows the trail, finds out that the daughter is a very lusty young woman who has proceeded from lover to lover, and each of her beaus has been somehow involved in the stunt work side of movie making. One is a mechanic, another a pilot, another a stunt coordinator. The trail is fairly straightforward, and leads to the home of the missing girl's stepfather in the Florida Keys. Harry brings her home. When all of that is resolved, you can look at your DVD player and see that 62 minutes of the film have passed uneventfully. That is all there is to the first two thirds of the movie. No special mystery, no dramatic tension, just a character-based missing persons case with some world-weary dialogue like this:

"I can't hear myself think."

"Lucky you."

Or this:

"Who's winning?"

"Nobody, but one side is losing slower than the other."

One strange event did happen during the first sixty minutes, but no special significance was attached to it. While out on a midnight swim with the missing daughter, on the night before taking the girl back to her mother, Harry encountered a submerged plane with the dead pilot still trapped inside. At the moment, that did not seem related in any way to Harry's case.

While the plot and atmosphere are those of a 1940s detective noir, everything unfolds in a classic 1970s way, with a lot of kooky characters, discussions of relationships, and existential angst. In the background is the fact that Harry catches his wife cheating on him, and this more or less gives him permission to have a one-night stand with a woman in the Keys, specifically the skipper of the boat that finds the submerged wreck. 

The last thirty minutes seem to be in a completely different film. Just a couple of days after Harry returns the runaway daughter safely to her mother, the girl is killed the course of a failed movie stunt  - in a car driven by one of the people Harry met in his investigation. The car's mechanic is another guy (James Woods) Harry met on the girl's trail. Harry smells a rat. He is no longer on the case, of course. His job is done, and the check is in his pocket, but ol' Harry is the stereotyped honest movie detective, so he naturally reasons that the girl would still be alive if he hadn't brought her back to mom, and he just figures he owes her one.

This is where the film stops being an existential character sketch and becomes a true thriller. Once all the chess pieces are in place, the last half hour moves at break-neck speed. In addition to presenting a string of murders, the final act also explains what was happening behind Harry's back in the first part if the film, so there are 100 minutes of plot and red herrings packed into that last 38 minutes. As Harry retraces his earlier investigation, he finds that he had misinterpreted almost everything he saw, and had failed to see the connections between events that were related. Moreover, he regrets not having realized that many of the mother's and daughter's ex-lovers all knew each other, having worked together on various films. Of course, Harry could not have been expected to see all these things because everything seemed straightforward and simple: he found the girl he was supposed to find and brought her home. He had no reason to expect any foul play of any type, and yet he still feels responsible for the fate of the girl he "rescued." 

The film finally turns the detective genre on its ear, because Harry manages to make absolutely nothing better with his involvement. As he retraces the investigation, the body count mounts. Everyone he suspects of having harmed the daughter soon turns up as dead as she is, but ol' Harry can do nothing about it, and just doesn't "get it" until it is too late. In the final analysis, he's not one of those masterful all-knowing 1940s movie detectives, but just a real guy like those of us in the audience. He generally can't see what's going on any more clearly than we can, he falls for the same red herrings that we fall for, and he ends up in just about the same predicament we would fall into if we were in his shoes. Harry is inspired more by Jack Gittes than by Sam Spade.

In fact, as you look back upon it after having watched the entire movie, you'll realize that the author did not really write a detective story at all, but simply used that old cinema chestnut to generate a soulful meditation on the nature of regret. I found Night Moves a rewarding film to watch, although it requires patience to obtain the full benefit from its patient mood-setting. At first, the sub-plot about Harry's marital troubles seems to be a major detour in the film's forward progress, and the first 62 minutes of the film can seem at times to be a very laborious and static process of character introduction. I was thinking, "I like it better when Dr. Evil simply calls his henchmen around the table and introduces them to one another, thus reducing all character exposition to about two minutes of monologue." Despite the languid pacing of that first hour, however, Night Moves doesn't really drag unbearably because the dialogue is clever, the characters are credible, and the film is sexy and sad. All of the things that seem most irritating at first - the marital struggles and the establishment of atmosphere - turn out to be some of the film's best elements once the audience adjusts its expectations.

The grand finale of the film consists of one of the greatest action scenes I've ever seen, followed by a curiously lugubrious and maddeningly indefinite conclusion. Faux-Chinatown. Very existential. Very 70s.



  • one feature: an eight minute "making-of" featurette called "The Day of the Director"
  • the transfer is widescreen, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 screens.



  • Melanie Griffith - breasts in a daylight scene, then all possible body parts in a midnight swim.
  • Jennifer Warren - breasts in a dark sex scene.
  • Susan Clark - breasts in a brief post-sex scene.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Gene Hackman was nominated for the best actor BAFTA.

The People Vote ...

  • I couldn't find a record of the box office, but Roger Ebert mentioned in his review that the film was barely released.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+, an excellent film for fans of character-driven 1970s cinema. It is a 70s spin on a 40s detective story.

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