Review by Glenn Heath Jr.
Posted on 20 January 2011
Source Warner DVD
Detective films blur the thin red line between what’s professional and personal, connecting the dots of evolving mysteries with the hidden traumas/secrets haunting key protagonists. Time is often condensed down to days, hours, and minutes, placing a special emphasis on space slowly closing in like an unflinching trash compactor. Through the inquisitive eyes of the detective, these films hold a magnifying glass to a specific milieu, allowing the light of the camera to pierce the façade of normalcy and sear the corruption and greed burrowing underneath. But perception, as they say in Hollywood, is everything, and the “reality” of the investigation often peels away more layers of an unending onion.
Arthur Penn’s restrained neo-noir Night Moves, both a celebration and deconstruction of the genre, addresses these motifs by immediately establishing 1970’s Los Angeles as a place with clearly defined social lines. Harry Moseby, an inconspicuous yet smooth gent, has lived on both sides of this rigid divide, first as a star NFL football player and now as a low rent private investigator. Although initially unwilling to question the moral ambiguities binding the two together, he’s keenly aware of the codes dictating both environmental landscapes. This understanding comes into focus after he receives a job offer from a rich Hollywood starlet named Arlene wanting to track down her runaway daughter Delly. After casually bringing up the case to his wife Ellen, he confides, “I have to meet one of the beautiful people.” The classic dichotomy between everyday life and the fantasy of Hollywood, working class humility and entitled arrogance, will define the film’s core investigation and play a role throughout Harry’s evolution as a character.
If Night Moves shows how every professional decision is ultimately a personal process, then Harry’s trajectory illuminates a special tension between complex characterizations and familiar genre archetypes. Harry is constantly pressed between a burgeoning cultural landscape and a more abrasive, “way of the gun” mentality. When Ellen asks him to see Pauline at the Beach in the hopes of bringing some culture to their relationship, Harry says “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” This reaction positions Harry as a classic sleuth, smart enough to understand the reference but too realistic to consider the surface indulgence as transcendent. A few scenes later, Harry confronts his wife’s lover after seeing them at the Rohmer film together. When the crippled man says, “Come on, take a swing at me like Sam Spade would”, Harry is flummoxed by the stereotypical label. In the realm of the detective film, it’s dangerous for an iconic figure like Harry to be so emotionally intricate.
All of this character building seems strange within a genre that depends on narrative trickery and momentum. Yet because Penn and screenwriter Alan Sharp spend scene after scene setting up Harry’s personal life, the disappearance of Delly develops into an even more fascinating mystery, an illusive secondary tragedy Harry is never fully able to rectify. In following Delly down to New Mexico where the 16 year-old shacks up with a stuntman, Harry finds a Macguffin that adds more thematic weight to the search. While having a drink in a country western bar, Harry muses with aged movie director Joey about the generational conflict they experience every day. “The world is getting smaller and the girls are getting younger”, Joey says, right before he nearly gets into a fistfight with a sloshed young cowboy. Despite the passage of time and inference of experience, Penn gives the sense that history means very little to a new ideology of self-importance, a thought process that can infect even those that initially seem like allies.
As Harry’s personal life falls apart, he delves even deeper into his detective persona, following Delly to Florida where she stays with her shady stepfather Tom and his younger live-in girlfriend Paula. After the ubiquitous haziness of Los Angeles and the barren heat of New Mexico, the sun-drenched balminess of Key West brings Harry’s investigation to a staggering halt. The lifestyle of drinking, conversing, and lovemaking evokes a bevy of art film aesthetics, ironically none more so than the languishing interactions of Rohmer. There’s a focus on ambience and color, the wind in the palm trees and the crash of waves. The “facts” of the case disappear into the romantic darkness of a nighttime boat ride or a drunken dance to island music.
So instead of taking the sexually promiscuous Delly back home, Harry decides to stay with this strange communal family, becoming enveloped in the mysterious past and present of Paula. This resolute femme fatale constantly challenges Harry’s perspective, further complicating the relationship between what’s personal and professional. “You’re not one of those intent on the truth types?” Paula sarcastically muses, another example of an outside character calling Harry’s role as an honorable detective into question. But this time Harry buys into the value of personal relationships over his case, ultimately a tragic decision for both himself and Delly. Unbeknownst to Harry, a story about a famous chess champion who missed a winning move makes for a telling analogy to his investigation.
Eventually Night Moves comes up for air, pushing Harry from this deceptive East Coast Eden back to the West Coast where he’s forced to deal with his dim reality. Delly is returned home to a nest of vipers, led by Arlene who needs her daughter for monetary reasons, and Harry continues to deal with his frustrating relationship with his wife. Up to this point, the value of interactions has trumped the traditional P.I. tropes like blackmail and murder constantly swimming like sharks below the film’s glassy surface. But the dorsal fins eventually reveal the true faces of evil, and a series of third act betrayals turns Night Moves into a full-fledged detective noir brimming with fatality. “I’ve been listening to your ping-pong talk long enough”, Harry screams at Paula during a particularly brutal interaction, a gender clash that could have been pulled from Lang’s The Big Heat. Eventually, characters once based in conversation become destroyed by action, and there’s no longer room for words in this “shoot first ask questions later” finale.
That Night Moves ends with Harry wounded (both physically and emotionally) in the middle of the ocean speaks volumes about the film’s diabolical outlook on fractured humanity. Isolation, resentment, and death seem to be swirling in the waves surrounding Harry’s boat (a vessel aptly named Point of View), churning up the many clues he blindly missed along the way. “I haven’t solved anything. I just fell on top of it” Harry says late in the film, referencing the futility and ambiguity of the case. Cynicism has always been a part of the detective film, but like with everything in Night Moves, Penn makes it incredibly personal. “Come on Harry; we’re going to catch the sunrise,” Paula says, words that are indicative of the film’s fiery pulp dialogue but more importantly allude to Harry’s failure to attain closure with anything emotionally tangible, whether that’s love, safety, or even loyalty.
Night Moves, from its misleading title down to the smallest detail of mise-en-scene (fish eyed glass, old school Hollywood sets), represents the inherent contradiction of overlapping opposites. Day and night, friend and foe, lust and love all become essential paradoxes for Harry as a dynamic modern archetype. One particular scene embodies this spirit the most. Early in the film, Harry watches a football game and Ellen asks him who’s winning. “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.” While this is a passive aggressive response to Ellen’s infidelity, it could also describe Harry’s degenerating professional confidence. As a detective, he sees all of the picture part of the time, and always from a sectioned off vantage point that is denied information by social codes and hierarchies. The omniscient, all knowing P.I. hero is a thing of the past, and Night Moves leaves us with a broken icon on the verge of solving nothing.