So far only a few films have reflected upon the malaise that hangs like a mist over our society in this post-Watergate world. All of them have been thrillers The Long Goodbye, The Parallax View, Chinatown. In these movies, the heart of evil is deception. Characters are lost in a labyrinth of lies. Night Moves, Arthur Penn's first work since Little Big Man (1970) is set in this context of duplicity. One of the characters remarks: "The truth is a lie that hasn't been found out." How does one live with meaning or purpose in a world where nobody can be trusted? We've all been brought up to believe that we can control events and especially our own lives. But what are we to do when we realize that events in both a public and private sense are beyond our control?
These are some of the predicaments that dog Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles private detective who is hired by a boozy Hollywood divorcée to find her promiscuous sixteen-year-old daughter Dellie. Harry follows some leads to a Hollywood stunt man and then learns Dellie might be in Florida with her step-father Tom. Meanwhile, the detective inadvertently discovers that his wife is having an affair. He confronts the man and then his wife, but the hurt is not taken away. He leaves for Florida. There he locates Dellie who's been sleeping with her step-father. Harry finds a brief respite from his wounds with Paula, an enigmatic lady who is currently Tom's mistress. Dellie is returned to her mother in Hollywood and soon thereafter is murdered. Harry's determined efforts to solve this case lead him into mysteries and murders far beyond his capacity to handle.
As a thriller, Night Moves does not keep us on the edge of our seats. But the movie has its rewards in script, performances and atmosphere. The writing by Alan Sharp (The Hired Hand) is sophisticated and engaging. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Moseby is moody and memorable. The women are uniformly excellent: Janet ward as the divorcée, Susan Clark as Moseby's independent wife, Jennifer Warren as Paula, and Melanie Griffith as the runaway Dellie.
Arthur Penn and his talented film editor Dede Allen are master mood-makers. Things don't hang together in the movie but then that seems to be an accurate reflection of our times. Moseby tries desperately to cut through all the duplicity and stem the tides of chaos that encircle him. A former football star, he still thinks he knows all the right moves. But Harry is quite helpless as his personal life caves in and even more lost when he can't find the solution to his case. In one of the most poignant moments of the movie, Harry's wife asks him who's winning the football game he's watching on TV, he answers, "Nobody, one side's losing slower than the other." Night Moves isn't a great detective story but in its own peculiar and interesting way, the movie manages to inch us a little closer to realizing our public predicament after Watergate: in a world of deception, we can't believe in winners anymore.