‘Night Moves’ vs. ‘The Long Goodbye’

nightposter

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.

HARRY SEEMS MOST AT HOME IN HIS CAR.

HARRY SEEMS MOST AT HOME IN HIS CAR.

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.

MELANIE GRIFFITH EMBODIED FREE-SPIRITED YOUTH DURING THE 1970s.

FREE-SPIRITED MELANIE GRIFFITH DURING THE 1970s

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.

JAMES WOODS IN 'NIGHT MOVES'

JAMES WOODS IN ‘NIGHT MOVES’

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.

ELLIOTT GOULD AS PHILIP MARLOW, A MAN OUT OF HIS TIME

ELLIOTT GOULD PLAYS PHILIP MARLOWE AS A MAN WHO DOESN’T QUITE FIT THE TIMES.

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 PLAYS A HENCHMAN, WHICH NEVER FAILS TO GET A CHUCKLE FROM MODERN AUDIENCES.

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.

MARLOWE VISITS A GROCERY STORE LATE AT NIGHT TO BUY CURRY BRAND CAT FOOD FOR HIS FINICKY CAT, BUT EVEN FAILS AT THAT MENIAL TASK.

MARLOWE VISITS A GROCERY STORE LATE AT NIGHT TO BUY CURRY BRAND CAT FOOD FOR HIS FINICKY CAT, BUT HE EVEN FAILS AT THAT MENIAL TASK.

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.

MARK RYDELL (RIGHT) PLAYS A HIP, CALIFORNIA-STYLE MOBSTER WHO MAKES EVERYONE TAKE THEIR CLOTHES OFF DURING A MEETING TO PROVE HIS 'OPENNESS.'

MARK RYDELL (RIGHT) PLAYS A HIP, CALIFORNIA-STYLE MOBSTER WHO MAKES EVERYONE TAKE OFF THEIR CLOTHES  TO PROVE HIS ‘OPENNESS.’

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.

15 Responses ‘Night Moves’ vs. ‘The Long Goodbye’
Posted By Steve Burrus : April 27, 2015 4:32 pm

Well as to whicjh movie that you teach about don’t go by what I say because I haven’t ever seen one of them but I w ould recommend that u teach about Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodby”. I vaguely remember seeing that movie quite a few years ago. I DO love the way that Elliot Gould interpreted his role as the Phillip Marlowe-like detective. to quote you : “but this interpretation of the character is not Chandler’s depiction of a tarnished knight in a corrupt land.” No Gould put a light comic touch on the character that I admire.

Posted By Autist : April 27, 2015 4:53 pm

I love “Night Moves” but come close to hating “The Long Goodbye”. “Night Moves” seems to come from a place of affection for the private eye genre, even if its P.I. is ineffectual–like “Chinatown” in that respect. Whereas I get the feeling that Altman was contemptuous for both the genre and his audience. That might be a good reason to use both films, I suppose, and discuss the differences between them. I wouldn’t mind if “The Long Goodbye” were an outright parody–like “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, which I love, but which also comes from a place of affection for those types of movies and not of contempt. I might add that I’m not generally a fan of Altman’s movies, though I liked “The Player” and “Gosford Park”.

Posted By LD : April 27, 2015 5:34 pm

The only one of the films I have seen is THE LONG GOODBYE. I saw it when it was first released and at that time Nina van Pallandt was a focal point because of her affair with Irving and the Howard Hughes hoax. I saw it again a few years ago and enjoyed it more than the first time but I also appreciated Sterling Hayden being in it, something I did not do the first time around. THE LONG GOODBYE is not my favorite neo-noir nor is Gould my favorite Marlowe. Both Powell and Bogart brought humor to the character, especially Powell, and I do prefer them in the role. But I cannot compare it to NIGHT MOVES since I haven’t seen it. I will be recording it though and I really look forward to seeing it.

An entire semester of film noir. Lucky Students!

Posted By david l hartzog : April 27, 2015 5:54 pm

I’ve seen both films many times since viewing them in movie theatres, and think both are classic noir. Tough to choose one over the other, but Night Moves is the more complex film, with Gene Hackman very convincing as a p.i. over his head.

Posted By swac44 : April 27, 2015 5:57 pm

The Long Goodbye is one of my all-time favourites, and it seems like it’s been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. For that reason, I’d probably go with Night Moves, just because it’s generally a little less remembered these days, and has some great surprises in it. Plus, even though I prefer the Altman film, I give the performance edge to Hackman who never fails to be compelling on screen.

Speaking of the Keys, have you seen the Netflix series Bloodline, Susan? Great use of the location and some terrific performances in a very tense family drama with a few noirish overtones.

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 27, 2015 6:05 pm

I don’t know abut Susan but I have seen a little bit of “Bloodline”. It is quite compelling but just where are the “noirish overtones”? I haven’t yet detected them.

Posted By Emgee : April 27, 2015 7:36 pm

Having seen both movies (film noir aficionado? Yup, that’s me pretty much summed up. I’d also accept addict), i’d go for Night Moves. For one, it’s a more suspenseful and dramatically rewarding movie. I like The Long Goodbye a lot, but it’s more of an anti-noir movie. Chandler’s Marlowe is a deeply moral man, whereas Altman’s Marlowe is totally detached and seemingly indifferent to what goes on around him. “That’s okay with me” is his stock response to whatever happens. Until the very end….

Marlowe doesn’t want to see, Harry Moseby looks but misses the big picture.

There’s a case to be made for either movie’it depends on what aspects of noir you want to focus on. Neo-noir or anti-noir, that’s the choice here.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 27, 2015 8:12 pm

When I saw NIGHT MOVES, I saw the ending as a much bleaker take on the ending of John Huston and Richard Brooks’ KEY LARGO (1948). Only decades later did I realize Michael Curtiz and Ranald MacDougal had effectively done the same thing with THE BREAKING POINT (1950).

So which film you choose might depend on whether you want to compare NIGHT MOVES to either of those films, or THE LONG GOODBYE to other Chandler adaptations…

Posted By Susan Doll : April 27, 2015 8:43 pm

Thanks for the food for thought. I will be showing at least one other Marlow-Chandler noir from the classic era, so there would be a comparison. However, I am in agreement about the complexity and mood of Night Moves. I look forward to watching this eve.

SWAC44: I have not seen Bloodlines, but I am plan to binge-view it when it becomes available.

Posted By george : April 27, 2015 8:50 pm

Both movies are great. So much has been written about them, I don’t know what to add. A couple of thoughts did occur:

1. Melanie Griffith was under 18 when her nude scenes were shot for NIGHT MOVES. Would that result in the director’s arrest on child porn charges today?

2. I’ve read that in later years, Schwarzenegger denied he was in THE LONG GOODBYE, although he’s very visible in several shots (as seen above). Did he feel humiliated by having to strip down for that scene?

Posted By Ben Hatcher : April 27, 2015 8:53 pm

My vote is for Night Moves, for a number of reasons. The first is a selfish one: Night Moves has no Blu-Ray release, so any buzz for the film that could slowly make that a reality would be great. (It’s also its 40th anniversary this year.)

Moseby’s characterization is really well done, you really get the sense of a man blustering his way through life. The locations are great too, although The Long Goodbye is strong there as well.

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 27, 2015 9:03 pm

Hmm you cert ainly posed 2 tantalizing questions which will forever just dangle out there! The law’s “statute of limitations” took over concerning that film director’s arrest AND as far as Schwarzenegger, after being in all of those “Terminator” and other movies, then being the CA governor, and now trying to “claw his way” back into movies he ain’t about to ever answer any question about possible humiliation in any past movie of his!

Posted By Donald Liebenson : April 27, 2015 9:14 pm

I think of Robert Altman as more a Hollywood iconoclast than a part of the younger Film School Generation (Coppola, Lucas, etc). Plus, I prefer Long Goodbye. I attended USC at the time and Arthur Knight brought in Arthur Penn and Night Moves before it was released. It alienated much of the audience. So it’s got that going for it.

Posted By george : April 27, 2015 9:18 pm

Steve Burrus said: “the law’s “statute of limitations” took over concerning that film director’s arrest”

Plus the fact that Arthur Penn is dead and can’t be arrested anyway.

Griffith was not shy about nudity in her early career (see also JOYRIDE and BODY DOUBLE, both made when she was legal). I was surprised to hear she was upset by her daughter’s role in 50 SHADES OF GREY, considering what Melanie was up to in her younger days. There was also the Playboy spread she did with Don Johnson …

Susan: If you’re selecting movies for your film noir class, I recommend the unjustly neglected MIAMI BLUES (1990). Although much of it takes place in bright sunshine, it’s definitely noir in spirit and attitude. And it has what may be Alec Baldwin’s best performance. (Jennifer Jason Leigh ain’t bad, either.)

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 27, 2015 10:01 pm

And Melanie was even younger when she started dating Don…

I second everything George said about MIAMI BLUES. Might be Fred Ward’s best work, as well.

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