Night Moves probably qualifies as a “neo-noir,” one of those dark seventies films with the proverbial private eye who gets involved in a case that turns out to have a lot more going on than first glance would indicate. Of course a woman hires him, of course he’s seen it all before (despite the extraordinary nature of the case), of course there’s a femme fatale (or two), and of course you can’t trust those you trust most. Despite all of these “of course’s,” and despite the fact that this film is very much a product of its age, it’s…interesting enough to deserve mention and at least some thought.
Boats, cars, and planes are all of equal importance here, along with their corresponding surfaces and spaces: water, land, and sky. Is this just for the entertainment value? Good chance. It’s L.A., of course, and the story would hardly work if it were anywhere else. It is, after all, the land of the open space and the accompanying agoraphobia. You need vehicles to traverse these spaces, but not a one of them is immune to the sinister forces lurking only barely below and within the spaces and surfaces. Granted, we do fly back and forth between L.A. and the Florida Keys; this offers an interesting and quintessentially L.A. take on Florida. The ease with which Harry traverses the space between southern California and the panhandle isles may imply his inability to differentiate substantially between the two places. An L.A. native, after all, knows the rural very well; as opposed, say, to a New York native. The latter may have “upstate,” but only the L.A. dweller is always a curious stone’s throw from desert nothingness while also residing in a sprawling, artificial, urban landscape. Escapist characters in Florida learn the hard way that you can run from L.A. but you can’t hide. It’s the City that accompanies them to the tropics and continues to wreak havoc upon them all. The return back to the City is a surrender, a capitulation that since they can’t escape the city’s shadow, they may as well live there.
Harry (Hackman) has a job he apparently shouldn’t have. Private investigation is bad for both him and his marriage; it’s driven his wife into the bed of another man and made Harry the kind of guy who would discover the affair and snoop on it. He plays chess and has a particular affinity for a move that would have won a famous game played years before he was born if the poor guy had only known what to do. Harry is somewhat ashamed of this misstep, despite the historical incongruity. He has to rub shoulders on a regular basis with nasty characters, but he’s self-disciplined enough not to let “bad thoughts” into his mind. Despite not having children, he is a father figure and even reminds the girl of the primal maternal. (Is this another incongruity?)
It’s been well-noted here how this Harry’s person and work differ from that of Hackman’s other “Harry” in The Conversation. In that film, Harry needs surveillance to justify (to prove, really) his own existence. The Harry of Night Moves, on the other hand, fails in surveilling effectively thanks to the mountain of crap in his own life mudsliding into his work. Watching Night Moves does trigger the uncanny in any viewer who’s already seen The Conversation (which preceded it by just a year or so). Not only are Hackman’s characters near opposites in the terms already mentioned, but the films are really near opposites, too. Coppola’s film is the textbook art film, minimalist, all about interiors, close-ups and long-shots, beautifully smudged in Bresson’s fingerprints, and over all just very thoughtful and substantive.
Night Moves, on the other hand, is basically Mitchell with a little more of a budget. (How is that classic available online? Don’t know.) Rather than Bresson’s prints, it’s covered in the most stereotypical tropes of seventies action films that exist. This isn’t to dismiss the whole thing; there’s value here, at least in granting the viewer another take on L.A. and its accompanying scopophilia. One of the above “tropes” that deserves a remark is the requirement that these heroes (anti-heroes?) be unkempt as they zoom all over the City solving mysteries and bedding women. Hackman looks as bad here as Joe Don Baker in Mitchell on account of the ‘stache. Pretty boys these days may be way too pretty, but these guys at least could have wet their hair after getting out of bed. Suffice it to say, it’s unconvincing how easy it is for them to seduce semi-attractive ladies.