[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
Films dealing with crises of identity, as opposed to celebrations of identity, in films by Peckinpah and perhaps Mazursky, are beginning to come out with a frequency that reflects a genuine urge to explore the phenomenon of contemporary selfconsciousness. Karel Reisz’ confused but curiously honest The Gambler, Coppola’s The Conversation, and, most recently, Antonioni’s The Passenger all deal with people who end up with no clearly delineated ideas about just who they might (or might not) be, even after looking at and for themselves in a variety of existential nooks and crannies throughout the films. Gene Hackman, who also starred in Coppola’s movie about a paranoid wiretapper, is now the self-searching protagonist of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves—a fittingly equivocal title for a film in which the potential dynamism of an action genre is suppressed to the level of creeping lethargy, while the metaphor of motion remains valid in terms of the shifting currents of personality and identity with which Penn is chiefly preoccupied. Hackman informs the movie with a bleak sense of non-heroism as a private eye who handles divorce cases, a man who distances himself from life by assuming a disinterested, often bitterly cynical point of view, prying out a1l the answers (it seems) while missing the meaning, until finally there is no discernible meaning, just a lot of dead or almost dead people swirling in the washed-out glare of an overexposed sea.
Distance and detachment are important in Night Moves not only in describing Harry Moseby’s (Hackman’s) relationship, or non-relationship, with the world around him, but also in exploring some of Penn’s own attitudes. Not that Penn is somehow “detached” from his work—simply that there’s something vaguely amiss, or perhaps missing, in Night Moves that suggests the kind of existential slippage from an already precarious niche of identity which Antonioni examines even more dramatically in The Passenger. Just in terms of what happens in Night Moves, it is interesting to note that, for the most part, violent or “action” sorts of things tend to occur either on film-within-the-film or, indeed, for the express purpose of being filmed as we and Harry look on: Harry watches the stunt flyer do his stuff for Joey’s movie cameras; later, he sits in the screening room watching footage of another stunt in which a key character was killed. By removing violence and action to a slightly less immediate level, Penn creates an inner logic of detachment whose thematic import is consistent with the pervasive imagery of windows, “frames,” and voyeurism, but at the same time he evokes an attitude towards the existence of violence in his film, and more generally towards violence and the way it’s dished out en masse through various media, movies included, Penn is not dealing with Bonnie and Clyde violence—highly stylized, aesthetically self-sustaining despite the cries of some socially conscious critics who missed his point—but about something almost infinitely more subversive: six o’clock news violence, people-getting-assassinated violence, real violence that a lot of us may have lost our ability to conceive of in any meaningful way. Thus, Harry lacks the irony to see that watching things happen on a fuzzy-imaged TV set is an apt metaphor for his work and his life, and it is only through our enlarged perspective that we hopefully pull away from Moseby’s viewpoint.
And matters of perspective are not to be overlooked in Night Moves. “Point of View” is the name of Tom Iverson’s boat, and it may also be a clue inducing us to look at the film not only in terms of its ostensible genre configuration, but also in the light of some of the metaphorical values operating within it which make it something other than just a private-eye story—or more precisely, something more than a private-eye story, something which spills over the edges of genre restrictions and opens an investigation of its own premises of perception. To suggest a multiplicity of viewpoints does not imply that Penn is merely tickling our intellects with the vicissitudes of circumstance and the unreliability of evidence within a private-eye story; it is a means of suggesting an examination of the way we see what goes on in, and what goes into, the movie. We often have an epistemological edge on Harry Moseby, but not necessarily in terms of real knowledge about what is happening within the narrative. Clues start to emerge the conspicuous, nearly flatfooted cutting between Tom and Paula as they glance knowingly at each other in front of Harry; the beginnings of a recorded message from Delie which would have told Harry and us just who was the airplane pilot they found off the Keys—but although we may know they are “clues,” we don’t know enough to assign them any meaning. We float constantly in a perceptual limbo somewhere just beneath omniscience, and our vantage is perhaps best summed up in the final image of Night Moves (which takes place at the end of a sequence of scenes that has emerged from murky darkness into blinding daylight): as Harry struggles to get the boat moving in something other than a tail-chasing circle, we hover above his restricted plane of perception, “enjoying” a privileged point of view but, despite our altitude, unable to fix Harry’s position any more precisely than Harry himself can.
Direction: Arthur Penn. Screenplay: Alan Sharp. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Editing: Dede Allen. Music: Michael Small. Production: Robert Sherman.
The Players: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Melanie Griffith, Edward Binns, John Crawford.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann