Gene Hackman hasn’t been in a movie since 2003.
Before retiring from the profession, his last screen credit was co-starring alongside Ray Romano in an unfortunate comedy vehicle “Welcome to Mooseport.”
This isn’t meant as a slight on Hackman, as “Mooseport” isn’t a travesty (just a forgettable trifle) and, really, Hackman has been in far worse movies.
Frankly, in a film career as long, risk-taking and rewarding as Hackman’s, the films that didn’t work are nowhere near as prominent as the ones that did.
For every “Lucky Lady” or (the career low point) “Loose Cannons,” there’s dozens of raw, generation-defining dramas (like “The Conversation” and “Scarecrow”), undisputed classics (“The French Connection” and “Unforgiven”), many underestimated gems (“French Connection II” and “Downhill Racer”) and even great performances in disposable movies (“Under Suspicion” and “Runaway Jury”).
Hackman could turn uncredited supporting roles (as in “Reds” and “The Firm”) into mini-master classes on acting. While his villains are the most iconic, it’s his deeply vulnerable, recognizably flawed and very human protagonists that have moved and captivated me the most.
What I’m getting it, in addition to just stating how much I miss Hackman, is that it’s time to revisit Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves.”
Hackman stars as Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles private detective who is noted for his work as a snoop catching unfaithful couples. Harry is hired by Arlene, a wealthy former movie star (played to the hilt by Janet Ward) to find her wayward teen daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith), who has run off.
Harry’s investigation takes him to Florida, where Delly is living a carefree existence with her stepfather, Tom (John Crawford) whose relationship with Delly is entirely inappropriate; a great exchange between Harry occurs when Tom cheerfully confesses that what he’s doing with Delly “ought to be illegal.”
Harry’s quick retort: “It is.”
Penn’s film, released in 1975, moves at such a causal pace, allowing character observations and gradual discoveries to reveal themselves, that the viewer is blindsided by its jolts of dramatic power. Note the sad, darkly funny but really just sad shot of the dysfunctional family that Harry leaves behind, fighting on their driveway. It’s all in a day’s work for him.
The occupation of filmmaking comes into play, as we witness how Delly’s work in movies connected her with unsavory figures (like a menacing creep played by James Woods, great in an early turn). Penn reminds us how movies can either illuminate the truth or hide it altogether.
As in Robert Altman’s work, the attitude here towards nudity is casual, as characters are naked because, as in real life, they wouldn’t be self-conscious about disrobing (as opposed to today, where nude scenes have a lascivious, ta-dah quality).
Other aspects that makes this very-mid-1970s are the measured pacing and character-driven narrative. Most important is how the characters are punished for their willingness to be among the corruptible. Their decision to compromise themselves pulls down everyone around them.
In this way, as well as elements of incestuous relationships and a detective who makes a third act push for justice and personal redemption, “Night Moves” is an ideal companion piece to “Chinatown.”
The title has nothing to do with Bob Seger’s classic song, which arrived a year after the film was in theaters. There is a nod to chess, as Harry demonstrates his knowledge of the game, making the wordplay connection of “knight moves” (later used as the title of a forgotten 1992 Christopher Lambert thriller, about a chess master accused of murder).
Despite this and the way the supporting characters acknowledge Harry’s being a “Sam Spade” sort of snoop, the character is reactionary, not in control of his life. Harry is, indeed, a great detective but more akin with an unreliable protagonist of film noir than a smooth, contemporary Humphrey Bogart.
Hackman’s character has been compared to Elliot Gould’s role in Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” I prefer “Night Moves,” which has a genuine affection for the genre (it may be unpopular to declare, but I prefer Altman’s flawed but richer mystery “The Gingerbread Man” over “The Long Goodbye” and its hip aimlessness).
A wonderful subplot has Harry obsessing over his wife (Susan Clark) and her affair- Harry repeatedly shows up, unexpectedly, at her lover’s home to startle them but doesn’t appear to have anything planned. He seems driven by either loneliness or a desperation to get her back, but he comes across as almost childlike in his refrained petulance.
These scenes give the character an uneasy edge. What kind of “hero” is this?
FAST FACT: Gene Hackman joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 16, lying about his age in order to be accepted. He worked as a radio operator during his service time.
Harry’s search for identity is rich. He’s a former football player turned sleuth, but his occupation seems like a necessary distraction from a failing marriage.
For a film devoid of stylistic flourishes (Penn’s approach is to make the detective angle contemporary and straight forward), there’s loads of memorable imagery. A key element is how a glass bottom on a boat allows the characters and viewer to reverse vantage points, at two key points, to observe death.
Late in the film, there’s a scene where Harry confronts his employer with bad news, which Penn frames with Harry’s back to her, at the left side of the frame. There’s a strange but undeniable emotional power in having his back to us, contrasted by Arlene’s cruel choice of words.
I won’t describe the ending, which is startling and incredible, but will note that it concludes on an image that perfectly sums up everything.
A notable coincidence is the funny, throwaway line where Harry casually remarks to his wife, Ellen, that a statue reminds him of football player-turned-actor Alex Karras. Five years after the film’s release, Susan Clark, who plays Ellen, married Karras. They starred together in the ’80s sitcom “Webster.”
Released in between his glorious “Young Frankenstein” cameo and his pulverizing turn in “French Connection II,” Hackman’s work here is extraordinary. He plays the role with subtlety, but Harry’s inner struggles are all over the star’s face.
He’s surrounded by character actors (like a hypnotic Jennifer Warren) and up-and-coming performers who are all in service of screenwriter Alan Sharp’s pessimistic take on Raymond Chandler thrillers. Penn will forever be associated with his 1967 breakthrough, generation-defining masterpiece, “Bonnie and Clyde” (with Hackman in a breakout role), but “Night Moves” is the one I re-visit the most.
Near the end of Hackman’s film career, he made an average of 2-3 movies a year. Today, the 90-year-old is retired from acting but is a prolific author who keeps a low profile. There have been attempts by filmmakers to lure him back into acting (most notably, Alexander Payne sought him out for the lead in “Nebraska”) but with no success.
At this point, Hackman has nothing left to prove as an artist but has left us with a body of work that is staggering in its exploration of human behavior. His characters are often frustrating and conflicted, but they always seem real.
“Night Moves” is a milestone for Hackman and Penn and a truly haunting, masterful work.