Format: Criterion Channel
Director: Arthur Penn
46 years on, it's curious to watch a movie that was doing 1970's meta-commentary on hard-boiled detective stories of the 20's - 1950's in books and movies (and radio and early TV), and know that we're about as far from 1975 as Night Moves was from the earliest Black Mask detective stories. We've also processed and analyzed the 1970's movie era as much as any as directors leveraged the 1960's collapse of the studio system to tell stories TV could not, carrying with them the cynicism of the era.
The obvious comparison is to The Long Goodbye, based on one of the final Chandler-penned Philip Marlowe novels. But while that book was a metacommentary on... any number of things even in its 1950's release window and lended itself naturally to a 1970's adaptation, Night Moves exists in our world, in which everyone knows who Sam Spade is from the books and whatnot, and makes jokes about detectives thinking they're heroes of those books.*
Aside from running back and forth between LA and the Florida Keys, the story certainly feels like one of a piece of the hard-boiled detective stories, but does play with some things that would have had some breakers on them in prior decades. Sexually active teens, wives cheating on husbands and discussion of that cheating in the "I have a therapist, too" vein of the 1970's... but even those things feel like things earlier generations would have acknowledged through coded messaging, or even just shrugged at, as a 16 year old would have been on the edge of fair game circa WWII.
One day we need to have a long talk about Gene Hackman, because, dang... he's Gene Hackman. And I'm not sure The Kids understand what it was like to have a major movie star who was the equivalent of your grumpy uncle or grandpa playing leads for decades, playing anything from sleuth to the President to whatever you wanted him to be. And if the movie has anything that stands out in particular to me, it's Hackman's naturalistic performance that grounds the movie and the "aren't we doing something gritty!" approach to a meta approach to detective tropes.
I know I sound like I'm bagging on the movie a bit, and that's not my intention. I do think it has some weaknesses (example: some unimaginative cinematography, odd for a major motion picture), and I was left wondering about a possible lead that the movie doesn't get a chance to explore as the movie draws to a close organically before my question could have been answered.** But on the whole, I thought it was solid, even if it's not my favorite film. It surely felt edgy upon release, and now it has its own clunky 70's-isms (not the least of which is characters making statements so you get that this is a reflection of those 40's flicks). But it does have lots of well-drawn characters for our hero to wade through, a sense of genuine tragedy that pervades the film, and a mystery that succeeds in allowing you to guess while the movie plays out, but makes total sense once the pieces are in place.
Anyway, glad to have finally seen it! Thanks to Patch Z for alerting twitter it's now on Criterion Channel.
Lots of Neo-Noir to come as Eddie Muller and Mankiewicz host neo-noir Fridays this month!
Now, here's Seger with his song, "Night Moves", that has nothing to do with the movie
*btw, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op are the hard-boiled detectives with a code. Sam Spade in his original incarnation, and arguable in the Huston film, occupies a far, far more morally ambiguous space. The first thing we know about him in the novel is that he's sleeping with his partner's wife, mostly just because he can
**I wasn't sure if Kenneth Mars was in on it