Night Moves

Gene Hackman as Harry

Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie Night Moves sits snugly alongside with two other films made about the same time – Polanski’s Chinatown (which went into production in the same month in 1973) and Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which had opened earlier that year. All three are neo-noirs recalling the era of Raymond Chandler, Sam Spade and Humphrey Bogart. All are set in the 1970s, but only sort of.

Of the bunch only Chinatown was a proper box office and critical hit, and even then some critics were a bit sniffy (the New York Times didn’t go a bundle). Since then, The Long Goodbye has been rerated upwards to join Chinatown in the pantheon, and now it looks as Night Moves is also in the process of being re-appraised (though Roger Ebert wasn’t alone in praising it to the skies on its release).

In terms of plot and character there really isn’t much to see here, or nothing new at any rate. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a jaded private detective hunting for the missing teenage daughter of a retired Hollywood actress. It’s precisely the sort of case that Philip Marlowe might have taken, back in the 1940s. And in many ways Harry is the successor of Marlowe’s white-knight good guy walking the mean streets described by Raymond Chandler.

The client slots right into the groove too, being a boozy floozy more interested in bedding men than having her daughter found. As to the daughter, she’s jailbait and Harry’s method of tracking her down is to work his way backwards through the men who have taken advantage of this 16-year-old who has inherited, Harry notes, her mother’s once-great tits.

Not much to see here, maybe, but with about 30 minutes of running time still to go – case solved, girl heading home with Harry – the plot dives off up an unexpected avenue and suddenly this downbeat noir is exploding with stunts, gunplay, on-screen death and a spectacular bit of action. Almost as if director Arthur Penn were aiming to recreate the effect of his biggest hit to date, Bonnie and Clyde, and its bullet-riddled down-curtain.

But even with the maxed-out ending, this is a film that’s not setting out to wow us with its plot. It’s more of a mood thing, one established completely the moment Gene Hackman’s Moseby first appears, a former football pro turned old-school PI with charm, a smart mouth and woman trouble.

Melanie Griffith, aged 16
Melanie Griffith as Delly

Penn gives us atmosphere, thick and warm and a bit dog-eared – the office that’s seen better days, the ageing starlet ditto, the beat-up car Harry drives – especially once the action shifts down to Florida, where the missing Delly is hanging out with her stepdad and his woman Paula (Jennifer Warren), who catches Harry’s eye.

The casting is an interesting mix of people who act well and ones who don’t. Warren struggles, so does Janet Ward as the missing girl’s mother (but then she is meant to be playing an actress who was never much good). Edward Binns, as something in the movie biz, also struggles to create a credible character. Maybe it’s Alan Sharp’s screenplay. Maybe it’s the ever-present comparisons to Raymond Chandler.

There is a young James Woods as a wiry, spiky mechanic who’s one of Delly’s conquests. And a very young Melanie Griffith, in her first screen role, as cockteasing Delly, a girl permanently eager to show the world what she’s got. Griffith was 16 when the film was made and production was paused so she could grow up a bit (legal reasons, I’m guessing). The nude scenes that dot Night Moves were shot right before it was released, over a year after the rest of it.

The title, incidentally, is a play on Knight Moves, a reference to a 1922 chess game famous for the play that the loser didn’t make and which would have won him the game. Here’s how it should have gone, Harry shows Paula at one point, and then shows her again, reinforcing the point. That’s the mood of this film – one of disappointment, the unhappy ending. Anyone fancy a bit of psychological read-across to post-Watergate America?

Night Moves – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Mickey One

Mickey on stage

Old Hollywood meets new in Mickey One, a neglected thriller from 1965 directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty, both of whom would upend the cosy certainties of a sclerotic industry with Bonnie and Clyde two years later and run through a few of the possibilities here.

The film focuses almost entirely on Beatty, as a club comedian and light-entertainment guy who goes on the run from the Mob after getting on the wrong side of them over money, a woman, and possibly a few other things. Mickey One is what the fugitive ends up being called after assuming the identity of a turned-over vagrant, “One” being as near as most people can get to the Polish surname. And after trying life as a hobo, then as a skivvy in a restaurant, Mickey takes a risk with a gig in a rundown club far enough from the Mob’s orbit to be safe. He hopes.

It’s a stylish film and from its very first visual, running under the opening credits – a fully dressed Mickey in coat and hat in a steam room with some sweaty Mob guys laughing fit to bust in their towels – there’s a strand of surrealism that marks the film out, and deliberately punctures attempts at thriller-style tension.

The thriller side of things is 1950s, as are the monochrome looks and wiseguy supporting characters. The surrealism is 1960s, as if some of the zany attitude of The Monkees TV show (which would air on TV at the end of the following year) was being given a try-out. The saxophone of Stan Getz – another of the bridges from 1950s to 1960s – parps away improvisationally on the soundtrack, 50s jazzy rather than 60s lounge-y.

Clearly made for little money, with post-dubbed sound allowing director Penn to shoot in a more freeform style using light rigs, Mickey One’s monochrome looks also tell a story of a film no one really expected much from. Penn was a TV guy, in the days when that mattered. The writer was a comedy guy and also from TV, in fact Alan Surgal never wrote another film screenplay. And Beatty, though a star since 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, wasn’t yet the sort of name who could open a film.

The collision of old and new is most obvious in the backstage scenes. As the film opens the conversation that Mickey (not yet called Mickey) has with Mob go-between Ruby Lapp is given extra old-school heft because minor character Lapp is played by Franchot Tone, a Hollywood name and star of the 1930s and 1940s, who is weary-looking and would be dead within three years.

Later, when Mickey embarks on his suicidally dumb comeback, he gets an agent, the dog-eared Berson (Teddy Hart), whose scenes with club booker Castle (Hurd Hatfield) couldn’t be more juxtapositional – Berson in wide-lapel pinstripes and tatty pork-pie hat, the hatless Castle drinking a smoothie, and extolling the virtues of organic food in his suit with narrow lapels. Later, he’s seen using an electric toothbrush. Modern.

Alexandra Stewart as Jenny
Alexandra Stewart as Jenny

Beatty has the charisma necessary to pull of the light-ent/comedy persona, and the writing when he’s on stage is quick and smart. But this is also a tale of paranoia taking a bite out of Mickey’s flip front. As the comedian rises again on the club circuit, he knows that the Mob will eventually work out who “Mickey” actually is.

This leads to several scenes of Mickey working on stage, under a single beady spotlight, sweating because he’s convinced that this is the night the shot will ring out. Penn/Beatty and Surgal could have worked the film’s paranoid moments into something really gripping, but instead undermine them at every turn, with injections of surrealism – a comedy trampoline, a conceptual artist who seems to have borrowed his shtick from Harpo Marx, the police arriving all sped-up, Keystone Cops style – all intruding when least expected.

This fight between paranoia and the surreal goes on all the way to the end and is, in dramatic terms, the film’s ruin. But it also singles it out as a weird experiment, albeit one that would be worked through most fully on TV rather than on the big screen.

But there’s a lot to enjoy. Arthur Penn has an eye (he’s the brother of genius photographer Irving Penn so maybe it’s in the DNA), Beatty has the charisma, the supporting cast – Tone, Hatfield and Hart in particular, but also Alexandra Stewart as Mickey’s complex love interest – is strong. It is in many ways a missing-link movie helping smooth the way from trenchcoats to kaftans. No wonder it’s odd.

Mickey One – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021