Sunday, December 6, 2015

Arthur Penn | Night Moves

by Douglas Messerli

Alan Sharp (screenplay), Arthur Penn (director) Night Moves / 1975

Gene Hackman has almost made a career out of playing doleful outsiders who attempt to bring meaning and order into a world they are afraid to enter. Particularly as Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterwork The Conversation and in the following year’s Arthur Penn-directed role of Harry Moseby in Night Moves, Hackman conjures up a world where no one and nothing can be trusted—from one’s wife to walls of one’s apartment! What appears to be truth is almost always a series of lies projected into the world by interlinking acquaintances, who, for often inexplicable reasons, would just as soon destroy one another. Welcome to the post water-gate world where a heavy dose of paranoia simply makes good sense.
      In both of these works, and particularly in Penn’s study in despair, people tend to gather round one another in terrifying circles, a bit like buffalos defending themselves from attack, and to separate one of these beasts out from others results in a kind of herd collapse, resulting in a whole series of destructive and deadly actions.

      Working as a cut-rate version the soon-to-be extinct breed, the tough American detective, Harry focuses little energy on the crimes committed by the figures he encounters, but concentrates, instead, on their location in time and space and their reasons for behaving as they do. And in that sense, although he obviously believes order can be restored, Harry is oddly amoral. Life is seldom improved by his actions: indeed, because of his fear of involving himself with others, he often does even carry through with what might have seen to be the goal of his tracking. Years ago, as a young man, he tracked down his own missing father only to watch him briefly on a park bench, acting like all the other old men.
     In Sharp’s and Penn’s dark tale, Harry is recommended by his fellow friend, Nick (Kenneth Mars) to take on a case that involves bringing back former actor Arlene Iverson’s (Janet Ward) daughter, Delly*—a Lolita-like figure who’s recently gone missing. It’s not that Arlene is particularly worried about her incorrigible charge, but that her divorce settlement determined that she must live with her daughter until she reaches the legal age of her trust fund; without the girl, Arlene has no income. She’d prefer, it’s apparent, to take the detective into her bath than send him out into the world to chase down Delly (Melanie Griffith). 
     Nick, we soon after discover in an argument Harry has his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), has attempted to hire our detective hero for his own quite successful company; but Harry obviously prefers to work alone—and for far less money. Nick is clearly proud of his success, symbolized by a display cabinet in his office filled with priceless pre-Columbian sculpture, growing more and more expensive every day, he explains, since the Mexican government has begun to attempt to protect them from exportation—our first clue in this twisted tale that things are not always what they seem to be. Indeed, despite the denials of critics such as Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert that the plot is so impenetrable that it is unnecessary to completely unravel it, I would argue that the interlinking relationships of the characters and the circular structure of the plot is crucial in understanding how and what Penn’s bleak tale means. 
     Arlene suggests he check out a young mechanic, Quentin (James Woods), who had hung out with Delly. The surly mechanic, who has worked as well for the studios, has evidently taken Delly on a shoot with him to New Mexico, has been abandoned by the young girl for a stunt pilot, Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello). On a film location, Harry questions Ellmann, also meeting up with stunt coordinator, Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns), and observes Quentin working on Marty’s stunt plane, despite their obvious falling out over Delly.
     When Harry discerns that the two men have also had affairs with Delly’s mother, he suspects that Delly may be working through her mother’s former lovers; and after a tip from Ellman that Arlene’s second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), Delly’s stepfather, is now organizing charter flights in the Florida Keys, Harry heads out of town—but not before his discovery that his wife has been having an affair with another man, Marty Heller (Harris Yulin).
     His voyage, accordingly, combines a journey that entails both his mind and heart, allowing the problem-solving part of his life to fill in for the marital problems over which he has no control.

     In the Keys he discovers Delly living along with her Iverson and his girlfriend, Paula (Jennifer Warren). The clever and fast-talking Paula makes it almost immediately clear that Delly’s presence is causing serious riffs in her own sex-life with Iverson, and when Iverson finally returns from a flight, he suggests he has been having difficulty keeping his hands off his own step-daughter. Delly, meanwhile, attempts, without success, to seduce the detective, in part to protect herself from having to return home with him.
     Complications dictate that Harry stay at Iverson’s shacks for another day, and he agrees to join Paula on a swimming trip with Delly that afternoon. While swimming near the boat, Delly spots the wreckage of a small plane wherein sits the decomposing body of the former stunt pilot, Ellman. Distraught by the event, Delly is comforted by the two, as Paula marks the spot with a buoy, which she appears to report to the Coast Guard when they return to camp. Later that night Paula joins Harry in his bed, but soon after disappears when Delly screams out from a nightmare.
     The following day he returns Delly to the California home of her mother, observing that Quentin has already turned up at the house and that the two, mother and daughter, are already arguing.
     He finds his wife missing, and breaks into the Malibu home of Heller where he finds Ellen.. She joins him at their home, and together the two attempt a kind of rapprochement, interrupted by news of Delly’s death in a on-set automobile accident. Apparently, she has been killed in a car driven by the stunt coordinator, Joey, who shows Harry clips from the accident. In one of the clips, Harry spots Quentin working on the car just prior to the accident.
     In a visit to the supposedly grieving mother, Harry finds her sitting poolside, drunk, reveals that she will now inherit the girl’s trust fund. Harry’s indignity for her lack of feeling leads to her demanding he leave.

     Unable to drop the case since he now perceives that he has been used as a pawn in the affair, he returns to Florida, where he finds the mechanic, Quentin, dead in Iverson’s dolphin pen. Encountering Iverson, Harry accuses him of having murdered the kid, which leads to a fight between the two older men. When Harry knocks out Iverson, Paula explains that the plane they had found had never been reported because it contained a valuable pre-Columbian statue smuggled out of Mexico, and that her sexual encounter with him was simply a ruse so that Iverson might check out the wreckage spot. 
    With Iverson’s accomplice, Harry now returns spot, but as Paula dives to retrieve it, a plane suddenly appears and moves toward to boat. As Paul attempts to return to surface with the loot, the plane dives down, its pilot shooting at both Harry and her. Paula is killed and Harry, seriously hit, watches the plane crash nearby, recognizing the pilot through the cockpit window to be the film stunt coordinator, Joey. 
     Unable to move, Harry attempts to manipulate the boat’s throttle, but only manages to pull it half way before he collapses, the boat beginning the slow arc of a circle, as he surely has come to realize that, like the chess game he plays over and over again—a move of the knight to checkmate in three quick moves which the original chess champion failed to play—his efforts to make sense of reality were all for naught, that he has failed at playing a game he did not even know he was playing.
     Finally, given this film’s emphasis on art—on both making it (primarily through the films references to other directors, in particular Rohmer, and its representations of filmmaking itself) and in possessing it (through the pre-Columbian artifacts and the expensive antiquities which Harry’s wife sells)—we might conclude that a world of such artifice can no longer allow a straight-forward, straight-thinking man like Harry to survive. For Harry, who clearly sees the role of a gumshoe as being someone to watch and follow in order to discern reality, there is no role for him in a place so designed. Watching in such a world, as he expresses it early in the film, is like “seeing paint dry.”

*The filmmaker father’s aspirations were to film epics such as Samson and Delilah. Certainly his daughter, Delly, might be described as a femme fatal devoted to sheering the hair of any likely Samson.

Los Angeles, December 4, 2015

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