Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we take on a missing person’s case with the private eye of Night Moves. This Noirvember, get to know the leading man of this underrated ’70s gem and see how he measures up to the icons of the genre that came before him.
Arthur Penn‘s Night Moves stars Gene Hackman in one of the finest performances of his career as Harry Moseby, an LA private eye operating his own less-than-prestigious firm. He is also a former professional football player and is recognized by most of the film’s characters for this past, so a certain masculine cachet precedes him. In one of the 1975 film’s early scenes, Harry discovers his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), is having an affair. He confronts her lover, Marty (Harris Yulin), and they have an emotional discussion that culminates in Harry grabbing him by the collar. Marty tells him, “Take a swing at me, Harry, the way Sam Spade would.” Harry lets go and doesn’t need to lower his fist — he had never raised it to begin with.
Harry Moseby is a character who feels out of place in the world of this neo-noir. This quality is not uncommon among protagonists of films of this ilk; according to Roger Ebert, Robert Altman and Elliot Gould privately referred to their version of Raymond Chandler’s legendary detective Philip Marlowe as “Rip Van Marlowe” while filming The Long Goodbye in 1973. But interestingly, the character of Harry Moseby produces the opposite feeling: there is something palpably contemporary about Hackman’s performance. Night Moves is a film about masculinity, and Hackman is playing a detective who exists in the shadow of icons of film noir manhood like Humphrey Bogart, and yet, throughout the film, he embodies a masculinity that feels rare and modern for the genre.
Much has been written about gender performance in film noir. For woman characters, the most famous archetype is the femme fatale, who weaponizes her sexuality and likely betrays our leading man (think: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or her neo-noir counterpart, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat). But the way that men perform gender in these films is key to their DNA as well. In his book In a Lonely Street, Frank Krutnik argues that the film noir, coming during a crisis of masculinity in post-World War II America, should be viewed as a reaction to a fear of shifting gender roles as women began to more actively leave the private sphere and enter the workforce.
Krutnik posits that film noir leading men were intended as paragons of masculinity, specifically, of a masculinity that was problematic and reactionary, and that these films are about men consolidating that masculinity through the solving of a crime or uncovering of a conspiracy. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, in which Humphrey Bogart plays detective Sam Spade, is often recognized as one of the earliest examples of film noir, and it is also a perfect example of this kind of consolidation. Spade is surrounded by characters who threaten him and want to deceive him, but he always triumphs over them and he always maintains his air of unflappability. He spends the film coolly rolling his own cigarettes and knocking people out like it’s second nature. By the end, Spade has solved the case and, regardless of their entanglement, given the femme fatale up to the cops.
Neo-noir films, in comparison to their predecessors from the ’40s and ’50s, are broader in scope, span a much longer time frame (circa 1960 to the present) and are, for the most part, unencumbered by the Hays Code. They are, however, often equally concerned with masculinity. Typically, with masculinities taken to their most destructive or interesting extremes, from the examination of toxic masculinity in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) to masculinity reduced purely to voyeuristic desire in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984).
Night Moves takes a different and unique approach: Harry Moseby is a character who both fills the Sam Spade mold while also being constructed in opposition to it. To simply call him the antithesis of characters like Spade would be misleading; he still maintains masculine authority and traditional noir eroticism. But where Spade’s masculinity is reactionary, Harry’s is progressive. It is a masculinity that has space for vulnerability, one that is not built upon a violent and threatening presence, and most importantly, one that relates to the women of this story as people rather than sex objects or reductive film noir archetypes of women.
After Harry finds out about his wife’s infidelity, he is exposed and vulnerable in ways that he’s not yet sure how to cope with, so he throws himself into his work. Retired B-movie actress Arlene Iverson hires him to find her sixteen-year-old daughter Delly (her namesake is the biblical Delilah, and she is played by Melanie Griffith) and bring her home to the Hollywood Hills. His investigation leads him to a film set that Delly had been hanging around on, and the men he speaks to there all have the same general thing to say about her: she’s jailbait — and worth the risk! When one man, Joey, speaks of Delly in a protective and parental way, Harry thinks he’s found someone of similar sensibility, until a young man innocuously bumps into them and Joey slams the kid’s head on the table and berates him. Harry is so taken aback by the violent outburst that he jumps up from his seat.
He eventually finds Delly in the Florida Keys, where she is staying with her former stepfather, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), and his girlfriend, Paula (Jennifer Warren). Unsurprisingly, Tom reveals himself to be more akin to the men from the film set than Harry: “I want that kid the hell out of here. I get pretty foolish with her. Well, you’ve seen her. God, there ought to be a law.”
Harry’s interactions with Delly and Paula quickly become two of the most interesting relationships of the film (alongside that of Harry and his wife, but more on that to follow). One can view Delly and Paula as the femme fatale archetype divided into two separate people: Delly is weaponizing her sexuality to get what she wants, but what she wants has nothing to do with a criminal conspiracy, she is just a neglected young girl looking for attention.
Paula, on the other hand, is the character secretly involved in criminal activities, but unlike a femme fatale, she and Harry end up genuinely connecting as two people who are each going through something. She disarms, but with her wit and charm rather than sexuality. And even though she never plays the role of seductress and Harry never that of the masculine aggressor, every scene between the two of them is alive with tension. There is a great moment where Harry is playing chess and shows Paula “three little knight moves.” Chess, of all things, becomes the most erotic thing in the universe.
On his first night in Florida, Harry finds Delly alone in his room wearing nothing but a button-up shirt she must have fished out of his suitcase. He pulls a chair towards himself and sits in it backward, resting his crossed arms atop its back, which prompts Delly to tell him, “I read in a book once that, when a man sits in a chair like that, it’s because he’s afraid of women.” Later, Paula comes by and asks him how he resists Delly. He just thinks “good, clean thoughts,” he tells her, but the reality is that it doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge for him, and this is what makes him an outcast in the world of Night Moves. Not only is he the first man in the film to not lust after Delly like she’s a forbidden plaything, but refraining from engaging with her in this manner is not something he considers a sacrifice. To Delly and Paula, who live their lives in a constant state of negotiating the consequences of the masculinities of the men around them — most of whom are like Tom or worse — Harry is practically enigmatic.
The next night, the three of them take the boat out on the water and find a small underwater plane wreck. The discovery of the dead pilot still in his seat sends Delly into shock. They return to Tom’s house and this incident leads Harry to have an important encounter with each woman. Paula joked with Harry in one of their first conversations that she was in Florida “convalescing from a terrible childhood,” and since, he has tried to learn more about her, but she rarely lets her guard down. When, on this night, in an almost shocking moment of earnestness — not for Harry as a character, but the overall mood of the film — he tells her, “I just want you to know I’m here,” you can see something falter in her eyes.
They sleep together, and the scene is at once incredibly intimate and also sexy in the way that a film noir should be. The beauty of Night Moves is that the former truth is not ruined when it is later revealed that Paula was partially acting under false pretenses here.
Eventually, they are awoken by Delly in a nearby room who is shrieking in her sleep from a nightmare. Harry runs to check on her, and she too lets her guard down for the first time in the film. As with Paula, Harry is the sole witness. She lets him comfort her in a fatherly way and Harry lets himself recognize his own vulnerability in hers. He holds her and tells her, “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re sixteen, but don’t worry, when you get to be forty, it isn’t any better.”
Harry takes Delly back to her mother in LA, and his wife comes back to him. At this point in the film, Krutnik’s idea of the film noir as a genre of masculine consolidation through the solving of a crime resurfaces. In Jonathan Murray’s review of the film for Cineaste he writes, “Child retrieved and spouse reconciled, Harry appears to restore both his home life and that of his wealthy client — but is the truth of either matter quite so simple?” The answer, of course, is no. The “wrapping up” of these so-called threats to his masculinity arrive with about a third of the film left. Rather than consolidate Harry’s brand of masculinity, the film seeks to challenge it. Harry experiences the restored state of things very briefly before finding out that Delly has been killed in a stunt-gone-wrong on the same film set he’d visited when this all began.
He decides he has to go back to Florida to figure out what really happened to her. As he says goodbye to Ellen at the airport, they realize that, emotionally, they are still finding their way back to each other. Harry understands that the moments of vulnerability he shared with Delly and Paula have led to him now being able to engage with his wife in the same way. There is a perfect moment from a prior scene, where, while in bed together, Harry begins to get confessional about his absentee parents and instinctually brings his hands up to cover his face while talking. When Ellen yanks them away, he lets her, laughs at himself, and continues speaking openly and honestly.
In the airport, Ellen asks him to stay and let this all go. He tells her he can’t but that he understands why she was unfaithful and recognizes that they have both felt the same longing and loneliness: “I know that when you get…” He corrects himself, “That when we get like that, we reach out for other people.” These scenes with Ellen are key to the sincerity of these aspects of Harry’s masculinity. When he embarked on his journey to find Delly, he did so knowing that it was a misguided attempt at something therapeutic (the film’s wonderful tagline reads: “maybe he would find the girl… maybe he would find himself”). In other words, he was seeking the path that Krutnik has described for the men of past noirs — personal validation through the solving of a mystery — but he now knows that what actually helped him was connecting with Delly and Paula. Going back to Florida to try and find all the answers very well may be futile, but doesn’t he owe it to the two of them to at least try?
He thus finds himself in a strange position for a film noir leading man in this third act, and this instability is reflected in the grand finale. He arrives back in Florida, finds Tom and Paula, and figures out what happened to Delly; like with all the best noirs, the explanation is perfectly convoluted. He goes out on the water to retrieve literal sunken treasure with Paula when suddenly a plane arrives overhead, shoots at them, hits him, and kills Paula before crashing into the water. A bloodied and disheveled Harry tries to steer the boat but cannot reach the controls. There is a cut to an extreme long shot and the final image of the film is this boat going around in an aimless circle.
If Harry and his wife will ever truly reconcile is no longer the question. Instead: Did he harm Delly and Paula more than he helped them? Was his personal growth for naught? Did he even really grow as a person if this is where he ended up? Could he die out here, all alone, on a boat called “The Point of View”? Night Moves seems to agree that a man like Harry is not long for this neo-noir world.