L.A. gumshoe Harry Moseby (Hackman) knows nothing, at the behest of former actress Arlene Iverson (Ward) to skip-trace her promiscuous (like mother, like daughter) jailbait daughter Delly Grastner (screen debutante Griffith), eventually he bird-dogs her in the Florida Keys, where she hangs out with her stepfather Tom Iverson (Crawford) and his girlfriend Paula (Warren), with whom Harry shares an amatory tingling.
After a grisly discovery under the water during a nightly open-sea swimming, the aftershock spurs the initially reluctant Delly to change her mind and return to the City of Angels with Harry, mission accomplished without much effort, it seems. But the truth is Harry doesn’t notice the funny business right under his nose, until it is too late, a tragedy (accidental or not) brings him back to the coast to face the wrongdoers.
But we cannot blame Harry, he is quite mopey recently after having inadvertently found out that he is cuckolded by his wife Ellen (Clark), yet as a private eye, he is perversely upright and scrupulous, always reveals his identity when asked, rarely resorts to violence even he is taunted by Marty Heller (Yulin), Ellen’s paramour, he doesn’t let rage go to his head, that’s what makes him a rather intriguing character that drastically differs from any prior or subsequent stereotypes of his vocation.
In Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES, a modern noir uncharacteristically opts for a languorous pace in de-dramatizing an old-fashion gumshoe’s banal itinerant actives, interactions (denuded of any thrills and chills until its climax) and its heavy toll. Since the entire perspective is exclusively projected from Harry’s POV, which excludes any telltale signs of ongoing criminality for a rapt audience to discern as long as Harry doesn’t discern either, actually it is not until the final reveal through the glass-bottomed boat (DP. Bruce Surtees is masterful in choosing angles from translucent barriers) , does Harry know who is behind the whole smuggling scheme and is spoiling for rubbing him out, and ironically he only survives because of his sheer luck other than any proactive heroic deeds, and the running-in-circles waterborne denouement serves as an optimal metaphor of Harry’s quagmire.
Unflinchingly but candidly cynical, everyone in NIGHT MOVES has his/her self-seeking agenda behind their actions (inter alia, a wandering wife, a horrendous mother, a cocksure stunt pilot, a stroppy mechanic, a woman willing to come across with an arrière-pensée), which makes Harry, actually the least egotistic individual among the pack, and a gimlet-eyed Hackman beautifully humanizes Harry’s ordinariness without any braggadocio which is often associated with someone in his line of business. But ordinariness doesn’t necessarily mean Harry is a boring character, on the contrary, Hackman puts on an earnest front to ensure that every reaction and emotional oscillation hits the mark, plus, he is the originator of the famous aperçu about MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969) ”I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watching paint dry.”
Amid the supporting cast, Canadian actress Susan Clark has a daunting job to justify a neglected, unfaithful wife but she is left little in her disposal, Edward Binns is exceptionally good with his deceptive amicability, but the one who can hold it against a pyrotechnic Hackman is Jennifer Warren, a sultry beauty visibly worn down by untold secrets, with her vestigial sense of goodness pluming out in every glint of mixed emotions. The long and the short of it, for those who seeks for an old-fashioned detective story with a difference, NIGHT MOVES is simply manna from heaven.
referential entries: Arthur Penn’s THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962, 8.3/10), BONNIE & CLYDE (1967, 8.6/10); Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974, 8.7/10).