Night Moves (1975)
Ah, the ancient 1970’s, the last great gasp of Hollywood aesthetic superiority, a halcyon period when studios, executives and directors made movies explicitly for adults and (gasp) the public flocked to see them. The core films of the era before Jaws and Star Wars gripped the box office imagination are probably the likes of Taxi Driver, both Godfathers, Badlands and the centrifugal vomiting of The Exorcist, while the directors behind those enduring classics also crafted well respected and influential texts such as The French Connection, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and Days Of Heaven. Bona-fide cinephiles tend to dig a little deeper with their appreciation of the era, celebrating the cult kudos of The Driver and Vanishing Point, The Warriors, Eraserhead or Harold & Maude, I could go on with numerous works from Altman and Bogdanovich, Lumet or Polanski, but space is something of a premium, and I haven’t even glanced at the science fiction launch-pads Westworld, Soylent Green or Dark Star, or the horror film mausoleums Halloween, The Omen, Last House On The Left, Dawn Of The Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers and on and on and on…..
But the real truffle hunters sniff out the obscure relics, the recherché oddities culled from shredded, mutilated and curtailed careers, films that are rarely screened or were released in any widely accessible format, a scarcity which awards them an almost celestial assignation to the devoted and pious. I’m referring of course to a period prior to streaming services and internet access, a golden hued age of film-lore when eagle-eyed scouts scoured through late night movie schedules, sneezed in the back rooms of dusty VHS arcades and interrogated the classified lists of genre press periodicals, just to acquire that eagerly anticipated Japanese subtitled fifth-generation Betamax print of They Call Her One Eye or an insomniac 3:30am accursed pan-&-scan screening of Deadhead Miles. I’m talking about the likes of Prime Cut, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, 3 Women (just released on Blu after a long period of deletion) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Last Embrace. Maybe we could also churn in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, Quintet, The Last Detail and Charley Varrick which I saw on a 2:00am ITV screening circa 1986. Yeah, sure I know these aren’t exactly hens teeth when it comes to the current proliferation of material old and new, but back in the day a new Moviedrome schedule or Channel 4 ‘Xtreme’ season was enough to get us cinephiles retiring to our fainting couches like overheated debutantes at a Saharan July 4th ball. So within that period specific context I was delighted to see that the BFI were screening a rare 35mm print of the 1975 neo-noir Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s companion piece to the post Watergate exhausted blues of Klute, All The Presidents Men and The Parallax View, the American body politic ridden with the cancer of corruption and scourged with a post 1960’s ennui, where the fading dreams of the counter-culture were crushed by a resurgent capitalist selfishness and sycophantic social control.
There has always been an underlying threat by the cinematic intelligentsia to reassess Arthur Penn’s achievements, he was after all the creator of one of post-war American cinemas most seminal films, Bonnie & Clyde, a New Wave influenced picture which ushered in a mature era of screen violence and submerged sexuality. It may look a little quaint now but compare and contrast this to the stilted 1950’s studio idiom and this was the Natural Born Killers of its day. I’ve lost count of the articles and opinion pieces in the likes of Sight & Sound which have demanded a new effort of analysis, in a fashion not to dissimilar to how Hal Ashby was resurrected by Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls tome in the late 1990’s. Penn does have a singular thread of individuals struggling against indiscriminate ‘alien’ forces throughout his work, politically left wing he exposes the corruption and power as the nucleus of the capitalist system, while directing a impressive roster of talent including Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Angie Dickinson. In Night Moves these arcs are supported by a nebulous character study dressed in the genre trenchcoat of noir, a hazy companion piece with Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with some contemporary body politicking perambulating around the genre staple of a missing persons investigation. Weary gumshoe Harry (a garrulous Gene Hackman) ply’s his slightly squalid trade in the blazing California sun, juggling his voyeuristic assignments with a disintegrating marriage, balancing the weary demands of his moral professionalism with a sympathetic yet unfaithful wife (Susan Clark). Harry is tasked to retrieve the daughter of an aging Hollywood B movie actress Arlene Iverson (a gin soaked Janet Ward), her free-love, hippy hangover influenced offspring Delly fleeing the nest to reunite with her stepfather in the Florida quays, a dangerous peninsula where it’s not just the reptiles who may shed a illusory welter of crocodile tears…
Firstly it has to be said that Inherent Vice is absolutely traced from this film, even down to the aura and atmosphere of certain specific scenes and interlocutions, complete with the same listless, somnambulant threat lurking in the barely intangible distance. It’s just one of those wonderfully jaded, bleak yet summer saturated hard-boiled thrillers, with a terrific cast of vivid characters and venomous vices. For me the real treasure was actress Jennifer Warren as the golden-haired, Californian toned femme fatale Paula, I didn’t recognise her from anything else so this was quite a surprising discovery. She is simply terrific as a sparky yet vulnerable creature with a resigned optimism, her garrulous posture shielding a tired of the lies, tired of the – this also has urged me to give Slap Shot a hip-check as I haven’t seen that for ages. As the plot absorbs a rogues gallery of lecherous stuntmen, stoned executives and defeated thespians the Hollywood backdrop angles new light and shadows on the human urges of lust and love, we cinephiles always embrace some meta-narrative complexity, with films within films straining at the boundaries of the illusory, the hidden and the haunted.
The film is notable for early appearances from Jimmy Woods playing – yup, you guessed it – a sleazy, sex-greased scumbag which would go to largely define the rest of his career, and quite controversially a 17-year-old Melanie Griffith as the Lolitaesque siren Delly whose activities would not be permitted today. Like Iris in Taxi Driver her naïve application of her sexuality to easily swayed men is a dangerous sacrifice, an unwitting implication of free-love and consequence free copulation But its Hackman’s movie through and through, he plays Harry with , just shading enough Popeye Doyle was a cyclone, . I’d be blackballed from the next cinephile meeting down at the docks if I didn’t reference the amusing jibe in the film, as Harry mischievously dismisses his wife’s invitation to go and see the latest film from the French New Wave auteur whose pictures were charming the critical intelligentsia of the period, blithely rejecting the proposal with the line ‘I saw a Rohmer film once. It was like watching paint dry’.
Modestly directed with zero in the way of attention screaming technique, and framed from the viewpoint of an ambling dog the film is resolutely low-key, with a muted palette and sense of framing that almost buckles under the weight of its exhausted ennui, of Harry’s dissatisfaction and striving for a moral righteousness in the face of indiscriminate apathy and narcissism. These dour designs award the film with a genuine sense of emotional charge, with two key bedroom set scenes distinguishing themselves as the empathic engine of the entire movie. Only at the end does Penn allow for a cathartic burst of violence, some half-cocked nod to the usual guidelines of moral alignment and punishment for ones sins, drowning such naivety with one of those delicious ambiguous endings which refuse to pander to any political or psychological simplicity. But it’s that narcotic, half-drunk seduction scene between Harry and Paula which lingers in the mind, the sequence which fully expresses the indigo souled of the weary wretches washed up on life’s broken beaches, especially when we’re in cahoots with the future revelations and betrayals of the plot. Prefiguring this is a scene with one of the decades most devastating lines, instantly among the best summations of the era, up there with ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown’ or ‘You talking to me?’, when Paula queries Harry on ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’, he pauses then coldly replies ‘……which one?’;