Classic Film Review: Hackman’s a jock-turned-PI practicing his “Night Moves” (1975)

“Night Moves” is one of those ’70s to early ’80s Hollywood noirs you channel surf by, get a taste of and say “I need to come back and catch this bad boy from the beginning.”

It’s got Gene Hackman, stepping into stardom after “The Poseidon Adventure,” Arthur Penn behind the camera and that sun-faded cinematography of Bruce Surtees (“Dirty Harry,” “Play Misty for Me”) that is the epitome of the way the era looked on film.

Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”) took a dip in the Big ’70s Noir Revival” (“The Long Goodbye,””Farewell My Lovely”) in a sexy, sordid story that captures LA and the celluloid film business of the day at its most louche and the laid back Florida Keys (Sanibel Island, actually) before Jimmy Buffett, McMansions, mass tourism and hurricanes ruined them.

Scotsman Alan Sharp’s workmanlike script — he later wrote “Rob Roy” for Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange and Tim Roth — turns Hackman into a long-retired football player who uses his size, his wiles and a little unexplained polish to charge on the high end and support himself and the working wife (Susan Clark) in middle class comfort.

An ex actress (Janet Ward) who divorced well commissions Harry Moseby to track down her wild child/wayward daughter. Delly is 16, “liberated,” sexually active and the role all but set the tone for Melanie Griffith’s career for years and years afterward. This was her first speaking part in the movies.

“When we’re all as ‘free’ as Delly, there’ll be rioting in the streets.”

James Woods plays a lowlife mechanic who works on film sets, fixing car and airplane engines, one of Delly’s paramours. Harry’s search will take him onto the set of director Joey Ziegler’s (Edward Binns) latest and into the Florida Keys, where the kid has fled to hang with her stepdad (John Crawford) and his fishing/diving charter assistant and maybe paramour (Jennifer Warren, never better).

There are “accidents,” deaths, and movie stunts set against infidelity and bad parenting, and loads of frank talk about all of it.

This character was “down on my knees to half the men in this town,” and given to crude come-ons.

“You could’ve joined me. It’s a big bath.” “Maybe some other time, when I’m feeling really dirty.”

Another character always looks freshly beaten (Woods). “What happened to your face?” “I won second prize in a fight.”

The plot’s geography feels off, in a coast-to-coast jaunts sense. I think they shot some of the LA scenes — not the movie-within-the-movie “location shoot” — in Sanibel, too.

There’s mourning after deaths, alliances are broken and then too-abruptly re-aligned. The “MacGuffin” driving all this is as arbitrary as the twists.

And the deaths-that-might-be-murders are a little tricky to reason out, for the viewer if not for Harry Moseby.

So many movies of the ’70s seems to reset their genres, and invent new ones. The modern blockbuster was born and “The Godfather” movies rethought our ever-evolving take on “The Greatest Film Ever Made.”

But when I think of the era, it’s of solid, bleached and washed-out thrillers (The notorious Eastmancolor film stock?) with chewy dialogue like this one, co-stars like Warren and Hackman swapping tough, sunbaked lines with a world weary fatalism that matched the age.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” “Which Kennedy?” “Any Kennedy.”

Hackman’s vulnerable tough guy — Hey, his wife’s cheating on him with Harris Yulin, for Pete’s sake. — seems a random collection of hobbies (chess, with the film’s title a pun on “Knight Moves”), urges, urges fended off, hunches and day-late getting to the bottom of things.

But there’s craft in every moment, and not just the fights, come-ons and nervy, pitiless finale. He sneaks into his house to catch his wife with her lover. Cranks up opera on the stereo, and when Yulin’s limping cheat stumbles down, Harry bellows “How about those ADVENT speakers?”

Damn. I had Advents, too. What a great decade for speakers, and movies.

Rating: R, for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, smoking

Cast: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith, Susan Clark, Harris Yulin, Kenneth Mars, Janet Ward, John Crawford and James Woods

Credits: Directed by Arthur Penn, scripted by Alan Sharp. A Warner Brothers release on assorted streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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