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Arthur Penn’s Night Moves

Well, Arthur Penn died. He was of course a great director. And of course everyone will be talking about how great Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is—and it is great. It’s one of the most important of American films; along with John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), it essentially kick-started 1970s cinema, and that decade’s auteur-driven New Hollywood.

But, for my money, Penn’s best movie was Night Moves (1975).

Night Moves is, at the moment, my favorite 1970s Hollywood film—well, besides Days of Heaven (1978) and Annie Hall (1977)…

But whereas Days of Heaven and Annie Hall are in their own ways essentially timeless, Night Moves is a perfect time capsule of the 1970s. It’s a movie that could never be made today, not in any way:

  • Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a private investigator (when was the last time you saw a film where the hero was a P.I.—and it wasn’t a period piece?).
  • He’s also a retired football player.
  • He also plays and studies chess. This is already more character traits than contemporary Hollywood directors consider necessary (unless they’re Wes Anderson).
  • Harry’s wife is cheating on him. Everyone knows this, including Harry, and there’s a scene where he discusses it with her and her lover that’s entirely 1970s. (Nobody seems to have much energy to do much of anything about it. Imagine that! The characters are allowed to be openly bored with one another, and with themselves.)
  • The film assumes that the audience will know who Éric Rohmer is.
  • The film posits that an adulterous couple would go see a Rohmer film on a date! (Well, My Night at Maud’s was a pretty big hit back then.)
  • Melanie Griffith appears nude in the film, her feature debut. She was 17 at the time. And the nude scenes are very important, crucial to the development of her character.
  • There’s other bed-hopping and casual nudity. None of it makes anyone feel much better, though.
  • People drink like crazy, and they don’t look any better for it.
  • The whole thing revels in a quease-inducing seediness: a major theme of the film is decay. (It’s the perfect companion piece to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).)
  • It’s one of those openly bitter 1970s neo-noirs. Another obvious companion piece, as has often been noted: Roman Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), also starring Gene Hackman. (You can even almost pretend that the films’ respective lead characters, Harry Caul and Harry Moseby, are twins who were separated at birth.)
  • Another companion piece: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Both films are about protagonists who try desperately but never understand what’s going on around them.
  • There’s nothing ironic about the film; it’s witty, but its wit is savage. (When Harry’s wife asks who’s winning the football game he’s watching, he answers: “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.”)
  • Another exchange, later in the film: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” “Which Kennedy?”
  • It’s a very honest film about adult male loneliness and impotence. Harry really has no idea what he should do to save his marriage—or if he even wants to. This kind of very real adult dilemma is inconceivable today, in the age of the Man-Child. (This film is part of the reason why Wes Anderson picked Gene Hackman to play the failed father and husband Royal Tenenbaum.)
  • James Woods also makes one of his earliest feature-film appearances in it.
  • Jennifer Warren is in it. It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film casting so naturally beautiful an actress as her today—or allowing her to appear with sunburned skin and uncombed hair. (And in a sweatsuit!)
  • It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film casting someone who looks like Gene Hackman as the lead! (Never mind that he’s one of the greatest Hollywood actors of all time.)
  • Michael Small’s score! (Go back and watch that trailer again, this time listening to the theme.)
  • The ending is simultaneously deeply ambiguous and boldly—boldly—metaphorical.
  • It looks utterly 1970s in every way. (The mustaches! The polyester! The film grain and daring uses of black!) For better or worse, it chronicles a world that no longer exists.

If you want to read more about the film, here’s Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review (but be warned: it contains spoilers). And here’s Jonathan Rosenbaum’s very favorable review, also containing spoilers.

I’d encourage you to just rent it and watch it, though. (The DVD is very high quality, and the “making of” it includes is fun to watch.)

To rudely paraphrase that famous exchange between William Wyler and Billy Wilder upon Ernst Lubitsch’s passing: “No more Arthur Penn. And, worse than that—no more Arthur Penn films.”

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

13 thoughts on “Arthur Penn’s Night Moves

  1. Are you calling Gene Hackman ugly! Shame on you!

    Good ode. The Man-child rears it’s infantile head again. I remember that post from months ago.

    I think what would be really funny is for a screenwriter to pitch a film idea to a studio like this: “It’s about male impotence.”


    Eyes Wide Shut
    The Spanish Prisoner

    Though it probably makes more sense for ‘handsome’ men not to appear in films about male impotence. Kubrick cajoling Cruise to being an exception.

    Though I haven’t seen the whole film, I would think the Rockford Files had a tiny bit of influence. It started in 1972.

    I didn’t know Penn only made about ten films.

    1. Also, one of Hackman’s best roles, though short is in ‘Another Woman’ 1988, from Woody Allen. At 1:10 you see his acting. Nice repetition Gene.

      Clip reminded my of how Ebert used to draw out what he would say before making the turn to another Gene. “I…was…mesmerized…”


  2. Roman Coppola? Maybe a joke I didn’t quite get there…

    But thanks for highlighting this movie. It sounds great.

  3. So I’m a bit late to this rodeo, but I saw this film and enjoyed it immensely. Chess was how I came to it, I might add. Larry Evans, who is no longer with us now, sadly, wrote a micro-review of this film when he presented the winning (but eventually lost) position from the game Harry Moseby replays and explains in the film. In talking about the game (and the crucial position) Evans also talks willingly about the film, and how the missed win in such a crucial (yet complicated!) position was both the essence of chess and life, and hence a powerful metaphor for the film and Harry’s character. It was also, according to Evans (perhaps America’s finest chess grandmaster not named Fischer) the best use of chess he had ever seen in motion pictures. I saw the film years after reading about it in one of Evans’ chess anthologies, but remembered the games and what he had to say and so had to see it when the opportunity arose. What I love about your review is how you are able to articulate all the reasons the movie felt different to me upon viewing it. In spite of the P.I./detective storyline and characters it felt like something I hadn’t seen before, a work that was created in another dimension and then slipped through a crack in the barrier that separated our existences, an artifact of a time that couldn’t possibly have existed if our films of today are to be seen and believed. Is there a way perhaps to get a list of must-see 1970s films from you? “20 from the ’70s” or something like that. Have seen and love Annie Hall, but not yet dared Days of Heaven even though I’ve seen two-fifths of Malick’s work.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Great to hear from you! I don’t know enough about chess to reply in kind, sadly. I’m glad you saw the film! Night Moves is one of the most artistic detective films I’ve ever seen. (I won’t say something like “art film masquerading as a detective film,” because in my mind that’s not either/or.)

      And I could put together a 70s list, sure. It wouldn’t be exhaustive—I’m still catching up on the decade myself—but I do know a few gems that rarely get mentioned. One of which, Two-Lane Blacktop, I wrote about here. And this comparison between 1970s and 2000s cinema might be of some interest.

      (Also, you can access all my film writing for this site more directly here.)

      Thanks for reading! Cheers,

  4. I finally saw it. Great, great, great.

    I would add, the even more funny line for me in the Kennedy exchange is the one you didn’t include: “Any Kennedy?” she says to “Which Kennedy?” Warren is a treasure.

    The cinematography is ho-hum, but I think it has to be, given the actors, the script, etc. Shades of the ending of Jaws II in this ending (I know, I know – the first one hadn’t even come out). But, how does he drive a plane and shoot a gun with a broken arm? Willing suspension of disbelief…

    The Long Goodbye – yes. Think of the Rockford Files too. It was a hit show at the time. Columbo as well. Then Kojak. The 70’s were a gold mine for PI’s. Body Heat owes it a debt. What is it with all the crime in Florida?

    The thing about Hackman’s acting is that when he does his thing, it’s like there is so much else going on. Look at how he laughs -it’s like he is really laughing and thinking about ten different things while doing it. When so many other actors laugh, I’m not so impressed with their laugh. I like how he rubs his chest hairs when talking about his father. A movie for adults, something so absent from Hollywood today.

    This is pretty good: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/loose-ends-in-night-moves-2/

    One quibble: I think Melaine Griffith’s nude scenes are only crucial to witnessing the development of her breasts.

    1. I’m glad you saw it, Greg! As for the cinematography, it isn’t flashy, but it really works.

      And as for Melanie Griffith, I’d argue her nude scenes aren’t gratuitous, but rather actual characterization: she deliberately flashes Harry, for instance; she’s sexually precocious in a way that Carmen Sternwood (in The Big Sleep) couldn’t be (mainly because of the times). Also, Griffith’s character’s self-conscious and somewhat desperate sexuality is in clear contrast to that of the much more mature and relaxed Jennifer Warren. All of which goes a long way toward establishing the film’s milieu, and the world Harry finds himself lost in.

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