When the story sticks to character and action, it succeeds. When it strays off into philosophical and psychological loses interest.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I've said this before but it bears repeating: Gene Hackman is one of only a handful of actors who always transcends the material he's in. Michael Caine is another. No matter how good or how bad the movie, Hackman and Caine can be depended upon to put in a first-class performance.

So it is with the 1975 release, "Night Moves." The plot is murky and not a little pretentious, but Hackman is superb throughout, almost, if not quite, salvaging the picture. It's probably a film worth seeing, if only for Hackman.

I love detective mysteries, so right there the film got my attention. Hackman as private eye Harry Moseby is almost irresistible in and of itself. Team him with director Arthur Penn, fresh from his triumphs in "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man," and you get a formidable combination. Unfortunately, they have a script by Alan Sharp that lets them down, a story that takes almost half the movie to get started and too often meanders arbitrarily in dark subterranean soul searching.

The movie's strong suit is its colorful, often sharply etched characters, which is, in fact, what Penn specializes in. As Moseby, Hackman is ideal as a retired football player (Raiders) turned to investigative work in L.A. He doesn't make much money at his little office, but he's too independent (and too proud) to take a job with a big detective firm run by a friend of his, Nick (Kenneth Mars).

Shortly into the story, one of his own private investigations turns up evidence that his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), is cheating on him with an intellectual type named Marty (Harris Yulin), who drives a Mercedes convertible and lives in a beach house. Moseby is away a lot; he and his wife don't communicate much or very well; and they both long for something indefinable in their lives. Moseby accepts a missing-persons case that takes him all the way to the Florida Keys, perhaps as an antidote to help him forget his marital problems; perhaps as proof to himself that he hasn't lost his touch in detecting; or perhaps to put a little adventure in his life.

As Moseby, Hackman is tough, often lost, but resigned to his fate. His character is also more than a tad naive, and the eye-opening circumstances he encounters seem to shock him as much as they may shock the audience. Hackman is never less than convincing in his portrayal, though, and without him we wouldn't have much of a movie.

His supporting cast is good, and you'll find some familiar names among them. Mainly, they are a diverse crew, each of whom has a dark side. There's Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a former movie actress, now big on the bottle, who hires Moseby to find her missing daughter. There's Delly Grastner (a young Melanie Griffith), the promiscuous teenage daughter who's disappeared. There's Tom Iverson (John Crawford), Delly's step-dad and Arlene's ex-husband, now living in Florida. There's Paula (Jennifer Warren), Tom's girlfriend. There's Quentin (a young James Woods), a shady mechanic. And there's Joey (Edward Binns), a second-rate movie director. They've all got secrets, and if they're women they all want to jump into Harry's bed.

Harry gets more disillusioned as the story goes on, and I have to admit that by the time it was over, I was pretty disillusioned by the movie. In the first half Harry leisurely ambles along from his own personal crisis to the case he's on, back and forth, and it all seems rather aimless. Then, when the case appears closed, the excitement really begins. So, you have to wait for it. Yet when the closing credits roll, you have to wonder anew if any of it was worth your time.

At age forty, Harry is a decent guy who's just beginning to question his own existence, the meaning of his life, and the sheer extent of evil in the world. My question is "Yeah, well, so what?"

The video quality is about what you would expect from a thirty-year-old movie on DVD these days. Originally presented on screen at a 1.85:1 ratio, it's transferred to disc in an anamorphic ratio that pretty much fills up a 16x9 television. Its major weakness is grain. Location shots are more than a bit grainy, as are most darker indoor scenes, giving the overall picture a slightly rough appearance. Definition can vary from excellent to ordinary, depending on the lighting in a shot, the camera angle, or the distance from the subject. And colors show up in fairly realistic contrasts except, again, when the picture gets too dark.

The audio is even more ordinary than the video. The soundtrack has been mastered for playback in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, with some apparent cleaning up along the way. Nonetheless, there's not much that can be done about the fact that the dynamics and frequency range are limited and the midrange somewhat hard. This does lend it a certain degree of detail to the sonic image but at the expense of not being particularly natural.

"Night Moves" was never very popular in theaters, so it's understandable that Warner Bros. would not go too far out of their way to spend any more money than they had to on extras. Basically, what we get is an eight-minute vintage featurette, "The Day of the Director," made during the film's shooting and mostly promotional. It does little to shed any new light on the movie, its characters, or its themes. In addition, there are twenty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
There was a lot of potential in "Night Moves," but looked at today it shows its too obvious seventies' cynical, trust-no-one bent. When the story sticks to character and action, it succeeds. When it strays off into philosophical and psychological rambling, leaving vital plot threads hanging, it loses interest. But there's always Hackman, who is as watchable as ever, and for him alone and a maybe certain raw and realistic brutality, the movie continues to pass a fascinating ninety-odd minutes


Film Value