Night Moves (1975)

*. Night Moves is often characterized as a modern noir, with a plot about a decadent moneyed family’s seedy past that seems torn from the pages of a Ross Macdonald novel. It is typical of such stories that they involve complications they’re not very concerned about explaining.
*. In the case of Night Moves I think there’s more at work than just the usual casual indifference to wrapping everything up neatly at the end. It seems to me that the plot’s many unresolved mysteries are left intentionally vague.
*. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the death of Ziegler. Here’s Roger Ebert, who rated Night Moves one of his Great Movies: “The plot can be understood, but not easily, and not on first viewing, and besides, the point is that Moseby is as lost as we are. Something is always turning up to force him to revise everything he thought he knew, and then at the end of the film he has to revise everything again, and there is a shot where one of the characters, while drowning, seems to be desperately shaking his head as if to say — what? ‘I didn’t mean to do this’? ‘I didn’t know who was in the boat’? ‘In the water’? ‘You don’t understand’?”
*. If Arthur Penn, or screenwriter Alan Sharp, had wanted to have Ziegler explain something … anything … they could have. That they didn’t, and wanted to end on such a note, says something.

*. There are other deliberate mysteries. For example: what was Delly going to say on the voice message she left for Harry? Does Harry even go back to listen to it? Was Delly murdered? If so, was the intention to kill Ziegler as well? Why? Was there any significance to the fact that Ellen works in antiques and that’s what the bad guys are smuggling? Was there a connection between Delly and what was going on? As Vincent Canby asked, “Why does Mummy seek the return of the child, who she clearly detests?” Was Harry being set up, or was his involvement just an accident from the beginning? Why would they set him up? How would that work? It seems to me they would have done better to leave him out of it.
*. I don’t see where there’s any answer to these questions, or even much to be gained from speculating on them. They’re left unanswered and unanswerable on purpose or for a reason. The question then is, What’s the reason?

*. My guess is that it’s meant to underline Harry’s own confusion. There’s a reason that boat is named the “Point of View” and it’s stuck at the end going around in circles. Harry has a limited point of view that we never get outside. He just doesn’t have enough information to really solve the case, which seems to involve a lot more than he thought it did. Or that we thought it did.
*. The reason Harry is so limited in his point of view is that he’s a loner. He can’t get outside himself. This is why he only plays chess with himself, going over games that have already been played (or solved). This is why he can’t really be seduced. This is why his wife is leaving him. He doesn’t tell her anything important about himself. They don’t communicate. She’s as surprised to find out about what happened when he tracked down his father as he is to see Ziegler at the end.
*. Of course there’s plenty of irony in Harry being a specialist in investigating adulterous affairs and not even being aware that his own marriage is blowing up. For how long has Ellen’s cheating been going on? Months? Years? And note that he isn’t even suspicious when he finds out. He just stumbles upon her infidelity because he happens to be driving by the cinema she’s coming out of.

*. A couple of newbies in the cast demand attention. James Wood is here in one of his first films. He would have been in his mid-20s when it was shot but looks about ten years older and is already displaying his manic tendencies. Did he ever dial it back?
*. I’m not sure how old Melanie Griffith was in this, her credited debut. Either 16 or 17. And not only is she naked, she’s available. How did they get away with that?
*. Dede Allen was a celebrated film editor and a frequent collaborator with Penn. One of her hallmarks was an attitude toward continuity that seems at times like perversity. I’m not sure she always gets away with it. There are some really rough patches in this film that I couldn’t see much of a point to.
*. I love Tom picking up the conch shell and using it as brass knuckles. I wonder if that was improvised.

*. This is a movie I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I don’t find it very compelling, whether because of the gaps in the plot or just the overall sense that it’s unclear what it’s about beyond the story of Harry Moseby’s unhappy life. Is it also meant to have something to say about America’s post-Watergate malaise? Hollywood?
*. But then there’s the good stuff. I like the cast, with Hackman really coming through as the not-nearly-bright-enough detective, Jennifer Warren doing a great turn as the ambiguous tomboy, and John Crawford as a beachcomber gone to seed. But most of all what has stayed with me are a handful of scenes that are indelible. The nude nymph Delly discovering the wrecked plane underwater. The almost grotesque dance that Tom and Paula do. And the final frantic game of charades that Harry and Ziegler conduct through those layers of glass and water, so suggestive of some meaning that’s getting murkier and further away from us all the time.

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