The year was 1922. The game was chess. The contest was K Emmrich vs. Bruno Moritz. Moritz had the game won had it not been for his shortsightedness. He missed an obvious pattern of knight moves that secured the game in Emmrich’s favor. Private Investigator Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) points this out to Paula (Jennifer Warren), both intoxicated by it. Harry ponders what hindered Bruno’s intuition whereas Paula is simply fascinated by the maneuver; so much so she asks to see it one more time. Harry wonders how much Bruno regretted his mistake, jokingly stating he regrets it despite not being responsible for it. Paula tells him he should feel regretful.
This one scene defines the film. It is smack dab in the middle, taking place at the home of Paula and her lover, Tom Iverson (John Crawford). They are housing Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith in her screen debut), a free-spirited runaway of a former Hollywood damsel, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward). Moseby has traveled from Los Angeles to the Florida Everglades to retrieve the girl, in the process neglecting obvious clues. I did the same; my vision as cloudy as Harry’s. I was too focused on the intimacy of the situation(s) to notice the knight moves.
Harry fails to register the knight moves in his life. It’s far too late in the game when he discovers that his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), is cheating on him with Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). He catches them coming out of a screening of “My Night at Maud’s,” which Harry rejected seeing on the basis that he had seen an Eric Rohmer film before and it was the equivalent of watching paint dry. He doesn’t confront his wife, instead her lover, in the most subdued fashion: he simply asks how serious their affair is. This is a man brewing with anger, yet he never shows it save for one outburst. He is more despondent than anything, a reflection of the counterculture post-Watergate. When he finally confronts his wife, she turns it around on him, laying the blame on his shoulders for not addressing her first. This may come across as cold, but makes sense once one begins to peel the layers of their relationship. Again, it’s all about those knight moves.
Harry dives into his new case as a way of running away from his problems. Fitting considering this is exactly why he became a private investigator. Offers to become an official detective in a firm are turned down in favor of the intimacy of freelancing to the chagrin of his wife. He’d rather detach himself from the hassle of empathy and get lost in the simple act of investigation; no emotional connection, no problem. This shortsightedness causes him and the audience to miss vital clues, instead romanticizing the detective work by dreaming up scenarios where Delly’s kooky ex, Quentin (James Woods), is the mastermind of the entire ordeal.
Is this a commentary on the ever-changing times? The detective angle is reminiscent of film noirs of old, especially the thrilling finale. This is awkwardly juxtaposed (intentionally so) with a personal character study on despondency. The film very much feels like the latter for the majority of the runtime, the former being hinted at but never followed through on until later on. Various non sequiturs are turned on their heads, proving to be fruitful in the end. Is this reflective on our expectancy or of Moseby’s detachment from reality? Could it possibly be both?
I think back to that pivotal chess sequence in which Harry looks longingly at the pieces. The way in which he stares quizzically at the board while Paula looks on in awe sticks in the mind, telling a story all its own upon further reflection. I also think of the scene in which Ellen questions her husband on his father issues; as he sarcastically tries to dodge the severity of his woes, she clutches his arm tightly as if to prevent him from running away once again. The relationship Moseby develops with the liberated Delly plays on a loop in my mind, specifically the scene in which he comforts the shaken girl after discovering a dead body submerged in the ocean. For someone attempting to secrete himself from empathy, he sure does run towards it. Each of these scenes lingers longer than they should, but I begin to wonder if that’s a pro or a con. After all, they may in fact be a statement on Harry’s mindset.
Once the pieces are put into place, the puzzle that is “Night Moves” seems so simple. Brilliantly put together by screenwriter Alan Sharp & director Arthur Penn, but straightforward nonetheless. And yet, I’ve been pondering the motives and commentary ever since the credits rolled. Despite the main questions being answered, more have popped up in passing; thoughtful questions that add to the allure, prompting a revisit sooner rather than later.
“Night Moves” isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s a quiet yet brazen mystery that isn’t afraid to be obvious. Ironically, Penn’s direction is subtle despite its apparentness. By focusing the attention on Moseby’s discontent, he throws the viewer’s suspicions off. I expected one thing, but got another. Just as I began to think the two tones weren’t gelling together, they interconnect wonderfully. As discernible clues present themselves, I question how it is both Moseby & I neglected to see them. It’s all about those knight moves.
Final Rating: A-