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).
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.”