Arthur Penn’s ever-appreciating neo-noir from 1975 captures the social, cultural and political mood of its era quite brilliantly. Not only does it evoke the increasing lack of trust and cynicism of the age (in all walks of life – post-Watergate, Vietnam, etc.) very effectively, but, with its running theme on cinema and its ditching of the erstwhile tropes of the noir genre in favour of more reflection and thoughtfulness, Night Moves can be regarded as something of a milestone film of the time. That said, it is certainly not (for me, at least) a flawless film. The acting is a little hit or miss and with its 'fashion sense’ rooted firmly in the 1970s (flares, handlebar moustaches and very much a 'TV soundtrack’ by Michael Small), it does have a dated feel to it, but this is more than made up for by a perceptive and ironic script courtesy of Alan Sharp, a brooding, atmospheric and complex plot that swings between the episodic and unexpectedly dramatic, and another brilliant acting turn by Gene Hackman as the flawed hero, LA private detective Harry Moseby.
We may initially be lulled into thinking that Hackman’s Harry is a traditional 'noir hero’ in the vein of a Bogie or even a 'modern day’ J J Gittes, but any such illusion is soon shattered as Moseby, called in to investigate the disappearance of the daughter of Janet Ward’s ex-actress and (failed) seductress, Arlene Iverson, soon finds himself living out an existential crisis of his own, acting 'private dick’ in following his unfaithful wife, Susan Clark’s Ellen, and reliving his past parental traumas. Harry’s 'man out of time’ persona is brought home to him as Sharp’s intricate plot takes the detective to Florida where he finds Iverson’s daughter, Melanie Grifffith’s teen nymphet Delly, existing in an apparently free-living (and loving) 'commune’ ('I guess you like things to stay the way they are’) and Moseby starts to uncover a (rather fanciful) plot involving murder, inheritance, paedophilia and smuggling. Sharp’s plot, whilst meandering nicely and keeping us guessing (in more conventional fashion) right to the end as to who the film’s 'baddie’ might be, essentially acts as the backdrop to Harry’s own inner turmoil, as the detective questions the morality of his career, his relationship with his wife and (more widely) just who he can trust. Harry’s dilemma is summed up nicely in the film’s (eponymous) chess game sequence.
Acting-wise, Hackman excels again, thereby adding another film turn to his impressive oeuvre, which includes the likes of The Conversation, The French Connection, Mississippi Burning, Unforgiven and Penn’s own Bonnie and Clyde. Elsewhere, Ward impresses as the malevolent Arlene, as does Edward Binns as stuntman Joey Ziegler. The film’s series of (apparent) cinematic references is also worthy of note – Hitchcock getting the most obvious nod via the use of a stunt (then 'real') propeller plane (à la North By North West) and perhaps by the casting of Tippi Hedren’s daughter Griffith, plus Arlene’s world-weary 'film star’ also calling to my mind Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (perhaps a bit of a stretch this one). The film is also noted for Harry’s (apparently ironic) put-down of Eric Rohmer, 'I saw a Rohmer film once, it was kinda like watching paint dry’.
All-in-all, Penn’s film is a memorable evocation of its era – a time of great social, political and cultural uncertainty, evoked brilliantly on screen by Hackman’s portrayal of Harry, whose past and future life trajectory is summed up in the film’s mesmerising final sequence.