I was alerted to this film by David Thomson’s tribute to its writer, R.I.P. Alan Sharp, a Writer Too Dark for Hollywood. Thomson credited two Sharp films, Ulzana’s Raid and Night Moves: “Neither of them was nominated for anything, and only Ulzana’s Raid did any business. But if you want to experience the richness of American films in the early 1970s, they are worth tracking down. You will be surprised how complex they are and how tense. They seem to understand movie narrative in a way so few films do today: He used mystery to draw audiences into his stories, trained them to answer the small puzzles, and then had them ready to grasp the implications he preferred not to underline. And both films are tough, bitter, and bleak, bearing the imprint of an unusual and talented outsider.”
Whenever we watch a movie from the 70s, my wife sighs and asks, “Is everybody going to die in this one?” Night Moves is indeed a dark film, but Thomson is also dead-on in identifying its allure. Gene Hackman plays a former pro football player turned private detective who is hired by an aging Hollywood not-quite-a-star (a dissipated but crafty Janet Ward) to find her wayward 16 year old daughter (Melanie Griffith, reprising her jailbait, tart role in The Drowning Pool, minus the malevolence). Griffith has taken flight, bouncing between movie sets in Arizona and her creepy stepfather’s (John Crawford) compound in the Florida Keys. In the meantime, Hackman discovers that his wife (Susan Clark) is having an affair, so he is in essence conducting two investigations, only one of which is really private. The picture is leisurely and intricate, until, as Thomson notes, a “deeply upsetting” end.
Hackman turns in an interesting version of the traditional private investigator, part canny but part limited. He is clever, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s also very human, a vulnerability. Along with Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Hackman’s p.i. is a marked and welcome departure from the type.
Sharp’s dialogue is noteworthy, especially in some of the exchanges between Hackman and Clark as they confront the state of their marriage and the import of her infidelity. Hackman is also given some wonderful lines:
Ward: Are you the kind of detective who, once you get on a case nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman…
Hackman: That was true in the old days. Before we had a union.
* * *
Paula: How do you resist Delly?
Hackman: Oh, I just think good, clean thoughts, like Thanksgiving, George Washington’s teeth.
* * *
Crawford: (on his nubile stepdaughter Griffith) You’ve seen her. God, there should be a law.
Hackman: There is.