Posted by Susan Doll on April 27, 2015
TCM airs one of my favorite film noirs, Night Moves, tonight at 12:15am as part the evening’s tribute to production designer George Jenkins. This 1975 film has been on my mind recently because I am scheduled to teach a course in film noir in the fall. It has been a long time since I have been able to devote an entire semester to one genre, and I want to give my film selection some serious thought. I am torn between using Night Moves by Arthur Penn and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman to represent the Film School Generation, when certain directors experimented with the conventions, norms, and standards of Hollywood genres. These films have been dubbed experimental noirs, deconstructed noirs, and even anti-noirs, but whatever you call them, they do represent a different treatment of the genre.
The late 1960s and 1970s proved to be a productive and creative era in American filmmaking that introduced directors such as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Penn. College-educated and film literate, Penn and his contemporaries self-consciously played with the conventions of familiar genres. Film noir especially appealed to them because of its darkly romantic protagonist, beautiful visual style, and criticism of the status quo. In tinkering with the conventions of noir in Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Farewell My Lovely, The Drowning Pool, and Night Moves, the directors of this era deconstructed, expanded, or commented on the characters and themes of the genre.
In Night Moves, Gene Hackman stars as small-time detective Harry Moseby who is hired by an aging film star to find her young, free-spirited daughter Delly, played by an even younger and more free-spirited Melanie Griffith. Harry follows the wayward teen from the studio backlots of Hollywood to a film set in New Mexico then to the Florida Keys, where Delly is staying with one of her many stepfathers. He escorts her back to Hollywood, assuming his job is done. But, Harry is not a very good detective, and when Delly turns up dead, he realizes too late that the case involved much more than finding a runaway.
Night Moves would be a good choice because it is set in both California and the Florida Keys. The film uses the Los Angeles setting so associated with hard-boiled detective fiction and classic film noir, yet much of it takes place in Florida, where many contemporary noirs have been set. The locations harken back to The Maltese Falcon but anticipate Body Heat.
The film’s dialogue also recalls the old days of Hollywood and noir classics like The Maltese Falcon as a way to compare Sam Spade to Harry Moseby. This narrative strategy forces a comparison between the past and present, between a bygone era of waning ideals and a new era of lost ideals. Characters in the film continually confront Harry with comments about old movie detectives. The client asks Harry, “Are you the kind of detective who once he gets on the case won’t let go?,” a reference to a key characteristic of detectives from days gone by. In an argument over her infidelity, Harry’s estranged wife goads him with, “Why don’t you take a swing like Sam Spade?” The references to the past are reminders that the world portrayed in classic noir might have been corrupt but it was still populated with people who knew the differences between right and wrong. Spade may have been cynical and tainted, but he was still savvy enough to solve the case. In the modern world, right and wrong no longer seem relevant, while detectives like Harry are not in the same league as Sam Spade.
Harry has difficulties communicating and interacting, which are definite liabilities for a detective. He turns off his answering machine in mid-message and fails to call back his clients. He works a case by driving around L.A. in his car, parking from time to time to conduct surveillance. Cocooned in his car, he sits alone, isolated from an outside world that he watches from a distance. He follows but does not confront. The game of chess becomes a metaphor for his inability to analyze and anticipate his opponents’ moves. Harry plays the game with himself, and he isn’t very good at it. The film’s title is a play on the phrase “knight moves,” which Harry explains to another character when describing a well-known chess game involving a famous player of long ago. The player did not make use of “three little knight moves,” which would have led him to victory. Instead, he played something else and lost the match. “He didn’t see it,” Harry explains, describing himself without realizing it.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER MAKES THE MOST OF A BIT ROLE AS A HENCHMAN, WHICH NEVER FAILS TO GET A CHUCKLE FROM MODERN AUDIENCES.
Like other films from the Film School Generation, the character of Harry Moseby sums up the malaise and disillusionment in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Despite the intentions of the protest movements and counterculture to criticize war, racism, sexism, class issues, and other social problems during the 1960s, their naïve efforts to make the world a better place were not enough to stop war, stave off corruption, or to counter the despair that came from three major political assassinations in a five-year period. Penn and his generation realized the contemporary world was much bleaker than the slightly tainted environs of the classic noirs of long ago, a point driven home by the film’s reference to the Kennedy assassinations. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” asks one character. “Which one?” a cynical Harry replies.
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye also features an ineffectual private eye in a contemporary world too corrupt to sort out. An advantage to the Altman film is that the disillusionment is softened with humor. Elliott Gould stars as Philip Marlowe, but this interpretation of the character is not Chandler’s depiction of a tarnished knight in a corrupt land. Instead, Marlowe is a hopelessly lost remnant from a by-gone era. He drives around L.A. in a crumpled suit too dark for the pervasive sunshine, muttering beneath his breath about his sad-sack life. Gould is funny, admirable, and pathetic all at the same time in his search for the truth about his friend, Terry Lennox, who seems to have committed suicide. As in most film noirs, even from the classic era, social institutions such as law, justice, and marriage are depicted as too corrupt and dysfunctional to provide hope for our failing society.
Aside from Gould’s version of Marlowe, another source of humor is the music. The film’s theme song, “The Long Goodbye,” is the only background music heard throughout the movie, but it takes a variety of forms, from the musak in the grocery store to the pop song on the radio to the mariachi version in Mexico.
Both films make use of interesting casts and expert crews, which are always fun to talk about in class discussion. In addition to Jenkins, Night Moves boasts the participation of screenwriter Alan Sharp and cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Griffith isn’t the only surprise in the film: Character actors James Woods, Kenneth Mars, Max Gail, and Harris Yulin also appear in early roles.The Long Goodbye was written by Leigh Brackett, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and scored by John Williams. Like most of Altman’s movies, the cast is unusual and eclectic. Key roles are played by Sterling Hayden, director Mark Rydell, and Laugh-In cast member Henry Gibson. Nina van Pallandt, who was romantically involved with con artist Clifford Irving, plays the femme fatale, while baseball player Jim Bouton and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger appear in small roles.
I am going to DV-R Night Moves tonight on TCM to see if that influences me to make a decision. But, I would also like to hear from TCM fans, movie buffs, and film noir aficionados who have seen both Night Moves and The Long Goodbye: Which would choose and why? Or, if you have been in a class that showed either film, please let me know your experiences as a student.
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