Part of the thrill in watching this great film lies in the sense of discovery. Made in Hollywood in the early 1970s by a first-rate cast and crew, Night Moves disappeared soon after release and has largely been neglected ever since.
Rarely seen on television, and not easily available on DVD, Night Moves has gradually attained recognition, at least in some quarters, for being a fascinating detective thriller with a post-Watergate subtext. A revisionist detective movie was not to the public's taste (just as the Missouri Breaks, a revisionist western, similarly failed at the box office). And yet Night Moves, with a script by respected Scottish novelist Alan Sharp, contains a fine performance from Gene Hackman, and was directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde).
Although it was released in 1975, Penn filmed Night Moves late in 1973, extensively reworking Sharp's script (originally titled, The Dark Tower). Penn hadn't released a movie since Little Big Man in 1970. During this three year break, he seemed to suffer some sort of personal crisis, and claims only to have agreed to make Night Moves on a whim; it was in fact originally a Sidney Pollack project. The film follows ex pro-footballer Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), an LA private investigator who is searching for the runaway daughter of a faded movie actress. Moseby, meanwhile, discovers that his wife is having an affair. We soon realise that Moseby is a man who seems disconnected both from himself, and those around him. As the plot proceeds, Moseby uncovers clue after clue, but seems to lack the facility to see and understand the reality of his own situation.
Arthur Penn, speaking of the film's origins, referred to the Kennedy assassinations, and the sense of despair and pervading lack of optimism in American life. He saw the script that he and Alan Sharp developed into Night Moves as a detective story where the detective is cut adrift from his own life and the problems that surround it. The solution, once it arrives for Moseby, only continues the despair, rather than being a traditional detective movie solution.
With these intellectual concerns in mind, Penn created a most unHollywood-like thriller. Some critics have referred to the sort of revisionism seen in Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye, where the moral values and discipline of Raymond Chandler's creation, Philip Marlowe, were completely jettisoned. But what Night Moves does first is offer us a rounded, complex character as its private eye hero, not a debasement. From the first few scenes we see him as a man who is ill at ease in his life, and whose gut emotional response is to investigate, to snoop and weigh up, even in terms of his wife's infidelity.
Look out for a young James Woods as a mechanic, and Melanie Griffith playing the role of Delly Grastner, the runaway. DVD extras include the theatrical trailer and an interesting 8 minute featurette, The Day of the Director, shot during production of the film.