When Los Angeles private detective, Harry Moseby is hired by a client to find her runaway teenage daughter, he stumbles upon a case of murder and artifact smuggling.
Vincent Canby wrote:
Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, the director’s first film since the epic Little Big Man five years ago, is an elegant conundrum, a private-eye film that has its full share of duplicity, violence, and bizarre revelation, but whose mind keeps straying from questions of pure narrative to those of the hero’s psyche.
Over the years we have come to expect our private eyes to be somewhat seedy and second-rate, beer-drinking loners with their own secrets to hide. But that seediness, as well as the decency that lurked beneath, has always been in the service of the genres. One never worried about Philip Marlowe’s mental health; one does about Harry Moseby’s. In fact, Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.
This is the only way I can explain my mixed feelings about Night Moves, which opened yesterday at Loews State 2, the Trans-Lux 85th Street, and other theaters. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), and the assorted characters he encounters in the film seem to deserve better than the quality of the narrative given them.
I can’t figure out whether the screenplay by Alan Sharp was worked on too much or not enough, or whether Mr. Penn and his actors accepted the screenplay with more respect than it deserves.
When we first meet Harry, he is taking on a classic missing-persons case. It’s to find the nymphomaniac daughter of a once beautiful Hollywood actress. The daughter, who is only sixteen, has been competing with Mummy for boyfriends.
The girl also stands to inherit the trust fund from which Mummy now gets a sizable income. Why does Mummy seek the return of the child, whom she clearly detests?
The plot thickens, but in the wrong ways. Harry discovers his wife is having an affair, and we learn that Harry had a terrible childhood, that he has trouble facing things squarely (as a knight moves in chess?), and that for one reason or another, he wants to face things squarely in this particular case. It’ll prove something, you see.
In addition to the performances of Mr. Hackman and Miss Clark, Night Moves features two others of note, by Jennifer Warren, as a beautiful, enigmatic drifter Harry meets in the Florida keys, and by Melanie Griffith, as the not-so-missing person. They all are more or less realistic, believable characters.
However, they are forced to behave and react in the completely unbelievable ways demanded of private-eye fiction, when people we know to be sensitive and caring can walk away from a new corpse as casually as if it were a minor social indiscretion. After a while it just seems absurd.