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New Hollywood Noir: Arthur Penn's 'Night Moves'

In 1967, filmmaker Arthur Penn was at the center of the Hollywood zeitgeist, launching a cinematic revolution with his peers. It was a time of rich cultural innovation, outside and inside of the cinema. The Doors and The Velvet Underground were airing their debut albums amidst the summer of love and "Sgt. Pepper" signaled another new direction for the ever-evolving Beatles. Meanwhile, Penn’s sleeper hit, Bonnie and Clyde, hit the theaters, joined by films like The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night. The releases ushered in a period of socially progressive and formally inventive American mainstream cinema. This continued throughout the late '60s as Hollywood reached a golden age of innovation.

Less than a decade later, the period was steadily reaching its conclusion. Penn's 1975 film Night Moves is perhaps a reaction to the events of the '70s, an answer to the widespread paranoia in American society following the Watergate scandal and the revelation of Operation Menu. Filmmakers like Alan J. Pakula have dealt with these events more directly, with The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). However, with Night Moves, Penn places the paranoia in a familiar narrative – using an archetypal American hero to symbolize the powerlessness of the American individual. 

The plot follows private investigator Harry Moseby’s (Gene Hackman) efforts to track down Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith), the daughter of a retired Hollywood actress. Tracing her connections through film producers, stuntmen, and an unnerving mechanic played by a young James Woods, Moseby eventually finds her in Florida. After some convincing, she agrees to return with him to California. This turns out to be only the beginning of the mystery however: soon after her return, she dies in an accident on a film set. 

Moseby retraces his steps, attempting to discover what happened, and who is responsible. He uncovers a maze of secrets that puts him at the center of a conspiracy with no one left to trust. By the end of the film, the private detective is still the character in the film who knows the least. Whereas Humphrey Bogart’s noir character would use his world-weary, seen-it-all attitude to work out what was going on, Hackman is left dizzied by the double-crossing and brutality he is subject to. 

The mystery would be bad enough without the occupational hazard, but his profession happens to stir greater feelings of inadequacy. There is something that he can’t quite put his finger on about the case, and to make the situation worse, he has just discovered that his wife has been having an affair. Moseby is in the dark, and this makes him completely unable to do the things that people like him are supposed to do in the movies.

But, this is New Hollywood, and a lot of leading men aren’t able to do what they’re supposed to. Just look at his competition: whether it's Donald Sutherland the title character of Klute (Pakula, 1971), Jake Gittes in Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), or even the famous Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973). Private eyes do not seem to have the knack they used to take for granted in the golden age. These characters often can’t crack the case, and if they can, they can’t do anything about it. The New Hollywood period gave the professional sleuth character a real beating, and Gene Hackman’s protagonist may suffer most of all. 

In this narrative, Harry Moseby stands in for the individual spectator, struggling for agency in a world without clarity. The filmmaker does not provide any kind of omniscience or privileged position. One of the great strengths of the way Night Moves tells its story is the way that we only ever know what Moseby knows. We are not given any information apart from the information he is given on screen. By the time the credits roll, we have seen exclusively what Moseby has seen himself, and we can take a good guess about which characters are involved, but we are denied the details. We get the what, and the who, but we are denied the all-important why – which is usually the question that sits at the heart of a detective-noir story. 

Remarkably, the denial of explanation doesn't frustrate the audience, as we accept the fact we can only know what our lead has worked out. The film's title is amphibolous, in that it also references a chess play. Moseby's allusion to the move becomes the central metaphor for the film’s narrative. He explains a famous game in which the knight moves, and the other player doesn't see it. His lack of perception is punished, and he loses the match. Harry Moseby didn’t see the moves either, and it was more important than a game of chess. Still, like the player he refers to, he ends the film as the loser. 

Hackman’s performance as Moseby echoes his leading role as the paranoid Harry Caul in Coppola’s mid-seventies classic The Conversation (1974), although Caul is much better at his job than Moseby is at his. A former football player turned private detective, Hackman’s character is the quintessential representation of the fallen, bitter and distrustful American hero of the New Hollywood period. 

In this way, Night Moves is the perfect exploration of the attitudinal changes transpiring during this era of American cinema. 



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