In three successive films over an eight-year period Arthur Penn redefined the borders of three major film genres. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was a love story about two vicious killers that ended with the female protagonist, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in a hip-flopping parody of sex while she was pounded and perforated by a barrage of .45 caliber machine gun bullets. Little Big Man (1970) is a picaresque western based on Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel in which all the usual western tropes are upside down and inside out: the white women are whores, the soldiers are bloody savages, the “hero” George Armstrong Custer is a homicidal fruitcake, and only the Indians are consistent, ethical, and occasionally close to rational. And Night Moves (1975) is a detective film in which the caper that keeps the protagonist occupied isn’t the one he’s really in the middle of, and neither the caper he thinks he’s in nor the caper he’s actually in is what the film is about.
Roger Ebert writes that Night Moves is difficult to figure out on one viewing, which is true. (2) That is in large part because the difficulty or impossibility of figuring things out is its subject. The film’s central character, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a private detective, a man whose job is to gather for other people apparently unrelated facts and make sense of them, but Harry is also a man who misses or misreads the facts that are all around him and therefore understands nothing of importance until it is too late for that understanding to be of any use to anyone; he understands neither the case that falls in on him nor his own life.
Penn has several times said that the mood of the film was a consequence of the Kennedy assassinations in 1963 and 1968 (he worked for both John and Robert) (3) and the killing of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics (which he witnessed) (4). “This was a period,” he said in 1994, “when we’d had all those assassinations in America. It was a terrible period, and I felt we were wandering around in a kind of blindness unaware of what we were doing to ourselves. It was a crazy period, and I thought we should tell this detective story in a way that could only be understood by what we see, not by what we are told. That’s the way the film ends. We learn who has been doing these things at the exact same moment Harry Moseby learns it: by looking through the glass–bottomed boat.” (5)
The basic action of nearly all detective fiction and film is one in which the detective figures out the story—the structure—into which otherwise disparate or inchoate or hidden facts fit perfectly. It is an action of distinguishing information from noise, a process that leaves no loose ends. That is what real-life detectives (and physicians, scientists and journalists) try to do all the time.
The camera in detective films is almost always looking at the detective, what he’s looking at, or what people looking at him are seeing. That limited point of view is the detective genre’s defining visual trope. It is why Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is in every scene in Night Moves, just as are Jack Nicholson’s J. J. “Jake” Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and, with one notable brief exception (6), Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). An omniscient camera eye would shortcut or subvert the narrative: if the camera were free to go anywhere and watch anybody doing anything, then the director would have no good reason not to let the audience in on the secrets much earlier. If that were done, the film would be in a different genre entirely, one with different rules and expectations. Even anti-genre films are to some measure constrained by the rules of the genre they’re redefining.
The structure and style of Night Moves reflect Harry’s condition. Dialogue from one scene often leaks into the beginning of the next. Some scenes don’t end so much as they are displaced by the scene that follows. “Very early on,” Penn said, “I felt that the film needed abrupt, disjointed, almost convulsive editing, something that might suggest a nervous tic…. The film is a kind of mosaic.” (7) It is not a story in which one clue leads the detective to the next so much as one in which the detective stumbles from one misinterpreted clue to another, not realizing what has been going on until the very last piece falls into place.
The answers to the questions he asks solve none of the problems he encounters or has. He’s a man out of place and out of time. “What interested me about Harry,” said Penn—who finds detectives in general “despicable people” (8)— “was being able to show a man who, without being a true outsider, is nevertheless alienated from the society in which he lives. He’s unable to establish meaningful connections with the world and other people.” (9)
Harry’s wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), repeatedly nags him to give up what she considers his sordid solo practice and join his friend Nick’s (Kenneth Mars) computerised detective agency. He’ll have none of it: he prefers the role of a 1930s or 1940s gumshoe when modern detectives have moved on to electronic data processing. But nothing works for him the way things worked for the classic private eyes. In the opening scene he locks a pistol in his desk drawer; we don’t see that pistol again until the end of the film, when he drops it on a boat, after which a woman tosses it into the water and it is seen no more: the prime instrument of so many detectives is useless in his hands. “Take a swing at me, Harry, the way Sam Spade would,” his wife’s crippled lover taunts him; Harry leaves instead. Harry is hired to find a missing girl; his success at that gets her killed. He crosses the country to catch the man he thinks is her killer only to find the man murdered, floating face down in a dolphin pen. He sets out to retrieve a smuggled antiquity, which results in the object being shattered, someone he’d thought a friend drowned in a wrecked airplane that slides off an underwater shelf into oblivion, and a woman with whom he’d made love killed when her skull is crushed by a seaplane pontoon. He attempts to salvage his foundering marriage, but his distraction with that private matter contributes to the young girl’s death, and at the end of the film his wife is on the west coast, perhaps once again taking comfort with her lover, and he’s immobilized on the deck of a small boat going in circles in the Gulf of Mexico with a bullet in his leg. Some detective!
Harry’s paid case
Harry is involved in five cases in Night Moves, only one of them paid for by a client—the finding and retrieving of the promiscuous 16-year-old Delly (Melanie Griffith) for her boozy, promiscuous mother Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward). That is also the only one he completes.
He gets the case from his friend Nick, who tells Harry the case needs an old-fashioned detective, not Nick’s computerised agency. That night he accidentally learns that his wife Ellen, who runs an upscale antique shop, is having an affair with Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), who walks with a cane and lives in an art-filled Malibu beach house. A lead from Delly’s former boyfriend Quentin (James Woods) sends him to a film location in New Mexico where he talks with stunt coordinator Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) and stunt pilot Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), who brags that he not only bedded Delly (after taking her away from Quentin) but her mother as well. As he is leaving, Harry sees Quentin working on one of the planes. Joey remembers Harry having made a spectacular interception in the NFL all-star game a decade earlier and the two later agree to “take in a game.”
He next goes to the Florida Keys, where he finds Delly at the charter operation of her stepfather, Tom Iverson (John Crawford). Tom’s girlfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren) takes Delly and Harry out for a late night swim in the course of which Delly comes upon a sunken plane, fish eating at the dead pilot’s eyes. Later that night, Paula comes to Harry’s room and they have sex. The next morning he and Delly leave. Later that day in Los Angeles, Ellen writes him a check, then, as Harry drives away, gets into a shouting match in the driveway with Delly, Quentin and a young man in a bathrobe.
That takes us an hour into the film. The Iverson case is over. Everything that follows results from Harry working on his own.
Harry surprises Ellen at Marty Heller’s beach house. Some time later she turns up at his office just as he is about to listen to a phone message from Delly. He goes home and has sex with Ellen instead. The next day Ellen tells him that Delly is dead. Joey shows him footage from the car crash on the movie set: he’d been driving and Delly had been working as a stunt extra. Harry learns that Quentin had been working as a mechanic on that film and asks Joey if Quentin could have “futzed that car.” Joey, whose right arm and side are encased in a huge cast supported by a metal brace, tells him that is absurd.
Harry goes to Quentin’s workshop where Quentin tells him that Delly had recognized the dead pilot as Marv Ellman and had tried to contact Harry to tell him. Harry accuses Quentin of killing Ellman to get revenge for taking Delly away, then killing Delly because she figured out Quentin had killed Ellman. Quentin tells Harry he’s crazy, then takes off on his motorcycle. Harry visits Joey and tells him his theory about Quentin being a double-murderer. Joey says, “I don’t see the connection.” Harry says he’s sure Quentin went to Tom’s place in Florida.
Harry goes back to Florida, where he finds Quentin dead in a dolphin pen. Tom tells Harry that he’d killed Quentin because Quentin threatened to go to the police. Harry and Tom fight, Tom knocks himself out running into a piling. Paula tells Harry that they’ve all been running an operation smuggling valuable Mayan antiquities from the Yucatan. Harry and Paula go out in Tom’s boat, “Point of View”, to retrieve the sculpture Marv had been bringing in when his plan crashed.
A small plane circles near the boat, then the pilot comes close and fires a burst from a MAC-10, hitting Harry in the leg. The plane lands, a raft surfaces with the very large sculpture. Paula surfaces a few seconds later. The plane speeds up, the pilot tries to shoot Paula but the gun jams so he hits her with one of the plane’s pontoons. The pontoon then hits the sculpture and the entire pontoon rigging shears off. The plane rises, loses a wing, then crashes into the water next to the boat. As it sinks, Harry sees that the pilot is Joey Ziegler, who pounds on the door glass with his white cast to no avail. Joey drowns, the fuselage of the wrecked plane sinks into the darkness off the continental shelf, and Harry is bleeding on the “Point of View”, which is slowly moving in a widening circle in the Gulf of Mexico.
Harry’s other four cases
We hear several times about Harry having tracked down his long missing father. That case was so important to him that he seems to get more angry at his wife’s lover for referring to it and his wife for having told the lover about it than he does at either of them for having an affair. Part of his reconciliation with Ellen consists of him admitting to her that he’d lied to her for years about the case’s dénouement: he had told her that when he found his father they had spent a week together, reconstructing their lives. But in fact he and his father had never spoken, never reconciled: “I was really pretty proud of myself, the way I tracked him down. I followed all the clues, from job to job, from city to city. I finally found him in Baltimore…. He was in a park on a bench sitting there, this little old guy, reading the funny pages out of the paper, mouthing the words with his lips. I just sat there for a while and watched, then went away.”
Then there is the case of Ellen’s affair. Harry comes upon Ellen leaving a theater with a man he doesn’t know, then sees her in the man’s car, putting her arm around his neck and kissing him. He jots down the license plate—“SUMTOI”, perhaps a combination of the Latin “I am” and French “you”: I am you. He uses the license plate to get Marty Heller’s address. He goes to Marty’s house to confront him, but leaves without resolving anything.
Next is the case of Marv Ellman’s and Delly’s deaths. Harry concludes that Delly wasn’t killed in an accident, as everyone seems to think, but rather that the brakes on the car driven by Joey had been sabotaged by Quentin. Joey tells him that’s absurd. Joey tells him who killed Delly—himself—but Harry doesn’t hear it. Harry has that “case” entirely wrong. Marv wasn’t killed by anybody; his death was an accident, perhaps caused by the same kind of recklessness he exhibited when he buzzed the film crew and made such a mess of the plane he was using in New Mexico. And Quentin didn’t kill anybody.
Was Delly killed or was the car wreck an accident, just like Ellman’s crash? The film supports either reading. Joey could have wrecked the car deliberately to keep Delly from telling anyone else that the dead man in the plane in Florida was Marv Ellman. The footage Harry watches of the accident shows Joey setting Delly’s safety belt. He could have left it unhooked and staged the wreck, figuring to get only a little banged up himself (but not quite as banged up as he was). Or it could have been exactly what he told Harry: a freak accident.
The only reason Quentin—who may be the only character in the film guilty of nothing—goes to Florida is because Harry’s wild theorizing convinces him that Tom Iverson had something to do with Delly’s death. The only reason Joey goes is because Harry tells him he’s going there to capture Quentin and solve what he believes are the murders of Marv and Delly. The last thing Joey wants is to have Harry discovering what they’ve been up to with the antiquities, so he decides to tie up the loose ends by killing everybody who can put the stunt and smuggling operations together. If Tom Iverson didn’t die ramming himself into the piling in the fight with Harry, it is very likely that Joey finished him off before taking off in Tom’s Piper Cub to deal with Harry and Paula.
Finally, there is the case of the smuggling operation itself, which involves Joey, Marv, Tom, and Paula. Harry doesn’t learn that existed until after his fight on the dock with Tom. Delly may have seen some of the action connected with it while she was at Tom’s, but nothing indicates she did or, if she did, it was of any interest to her. Arlene knew that Joey, Tom and Marv knew one another—she’d known Joey a long time, she’d been married to Tom and she had an affair with Marv when Tom brought him home while he was a stunt man—but nothing indicates she knew they were presently involved in smuggling. Harry’s friend Nick collects Mayan pottery, knows Arlene and Delly, but nothing suggests he’s part of the illegal operation: he buys that stuff because he likes it and can afford it, just like the customers in Ellen’s upscale antique shop and Marty Heller. Many things in the film that seem to be connections are just coincidence, with no causal relationship at all.
As they near the place Tom hid the sculpture Harry pushes Paula for an explanation. “What does it matter, Harry?” He responds, “I want to know what it’s all about.” “You’re asking the wrong questions,” she tells him. “Why don’t you just be content you’ve solved the case.” He answers, “I didn’t solve anything. Just fell in on top of me.”
Harry then tries to abandon this case that he crossed the country to solve, just as he had done when he found his father in Baltimore: “Let the coast guard do it,” he says as Paula is about to go into the water. Perhaps he’s realized that even when the piece has surfaced he will know no more about anything that really matters than he did when he started. She responds with one of her usual wisecracks and goes into the sea and to her death. (10)
The detective’s job, as I noted earlier, is to separate information from noise. Harry doesn’t come close. The noise inside his own head is so loud he can’t hear what people are saying to him. It’s not until he sees the white cast on Joey as he drowns that he solves the case he’d been in the middle of almost since the beginning of the film but never knew was there. At that point, he is incapable of doing anything about anything: the knowledge leads to nothing. It never was his case anyway.
In much of the film we see Harry through something or Harry sees the world through something. It isn’t until the end of the last scene that Harry learns who his nemesis had been and is, presumably, able to work back from that and figure out the plot he had stumbled into. Once the plane goes into the water, we see Harry in eight separate shots or cuts through water, glass and bubbles as Joey drowns and the wrecked fuselage disappears into the deep.
Before Harry goes to Florida the first time, he and Ellen talk, each inside their cars. We see him inside his Mustang in the opening shot and through the frosted glass of his office door in the second. When he drives away from Arlene, Delly, Quentin and the young man in the bathrobe yelling at one another in the driveway Harry rolls up his car window in an apparent attempt to isolate himself from the family mess that marks the end of the Iverson case. When he is in Florida he has two encounters with Paula through screens. When the plane circles near the boat in the final sequence Harry can’t make out that it is Tom’s yellow Piper Cub because the plane is in front of the sun and it is just a blur until it makes its final pass.
Earlier, I quoted Penn telling an interviewer, “I thought we should tell this detective story in a way that could only be understood by what we see, not by what we are told.” But things seen are not only framed and filtered, they are sometimes distorted. To the left of Ellen’s desk in her shop is a large porcelain vase in a cabinet. On the cabinet’s glass door is a round Fresnel lens, one of those trendy decorative items that sticks to glass and operates like a very wide-angle lens. It is in the background, the camera doesn’t linger on it, but such lenses will shortly become thematic. When Ellen comes home the night Harry discovers her infidelity, he watches her car pull into the driveway from his third flood study window. In that window is a large round Fresnel lens, so he sees her car doubled, with one car small and distorted, the other large and natural. When Harry goes into Marty’s place the first time, he looks—and the camera holds on him looking—at two Fresnel lenses on Marty’s door, one large and one small. They’re just like the lens on his study window at home. He does two double takes on Marty’s lenses; they appear in eight separate shots in the scene. When Harry lets himself into Marty’s place after his return from Florida, the first interior shot shows the two overlapping Fresnel lenses. We see them four more times in that scene, twice looking in at Harry, twice looking out at a tripled Marty. When Ellen returns to the house with the news of Delly’s death the morning after their lovemaking, Harry again looks down at her doubled car through his third floor window with its Fresnel lens.
It is unlikely that Harry would have affixed one of those 1970s tchotchkes to his study window. He’s more taken with football memorabilia, like the bronze trophy on his office desk and large Raiders poster and football photographs on his study walls. It is also unlikely that Marty, with his fine artistic sense, would have stuck two of them on his sliding glass door overlooking the Pacific ocean: the rolling surf and gorgeous sunsets have no need of enhancement. The Fresnel lenses are Ellen’s taste—one in her office, one in Harry’s study, two in her lover’s house. They’re her mark and they visually link the three parts of her world for her, for Harry, and for us.
They do more. Those lenses produce a very wide-angle image, but they distort everything in sight. Sometimes they even sit atop the real. Sometimes they double it. Sometimes they get in the way of the real, which can be seen much more clearly without them. They prove that what you see isn’t necessarily what is in fact there, that you have to know what you’re looking at to understand what you’re seeing.
It is night when Harry discovers his wife’s adultery; when he shows Paula some chess moves; when he, Paula and Delly come upon Marv’s wrecked plane; when Harry sleeps with Paula; when Harry confronts Ellen at Marty Heller’s Malibu house; when Harry leaves for his second Florida trip, when he arrives in Florida, and when Harry has the fistfight with Tom and sets off in the boat with Paula. There is also Harry’s metaphorical darkness: he spends the entire film, save the last moment, in the dark about what narrative he in fact inhabits. But just as many of the film’s moves take place in the bright light of day: both of Harry’s visits to Quentin’s shop are in daylight, as are his three visits to Arlene’s house, most of his conversation with Joey on location in New Mexico, most of his first trip to Florida, his meeting with Joey at the screening room to look at the crash footage, and the fateful end sequence in the Gulf of Mexico.
The title of the film is a pun. Alan Sharp’s screenplay was titled “The Dark Tower” but Penn changed it because of the script’s many references, both literal and metaphorical, to chess. (11)
Three different chessboards appear in the film, one of them twice. Each time, the chess involvement is more complex. A pan in the opening scene shows an ordinary white and black set atop a small office refrigerator. All the pieces are in the opening position; no moves have yet been made. A red and white ivory chess set on a white marble board is center frame in Ellen’s shop when Harry enters the room in the deep right background. Harry comes around a wall, picks up a white knight and tosses it to Ellen’s clerk, Charles (Ben Archibek).
Harry’s small travel chess set appears twice. The first time is on the passenger seat of his car in Malibu while he waits for his wife’s lover to get home. He alternately looks at oncoming traffic in his outside mirror, then at the chessboard. In the last of that scene’s four shots including the chessboard, his hand hovers over a piece but does nothing.
The travel set next appears at Tom’s place in Florida. Delly sees him carrying it and asks, “Is chess hard to learn?” “It isn’t easy, believe me,” Harry replies. A few minutes later he reenacts what he tells Paula is a championship game played in 1922. “Black had a mate,” he tells her. “He didn’t see it. Queen sacrifice. And three double knight moves.” He shows the moves. A moment later she leaves, takes a few paces, then comes back and says through the door screen, “Show me that again.” He does. “Ah. It’s a beauty,” she says. “Yeah,” Harry says, “but he didn’t see it. He played something else and he lost. Must have regretted it every day of his life. I know I would have. Matter of fact, I do regret it and I wasn’t even born yet.” “That’s no excuse,” Paula says.
That is, most obviously, Harry’s story in the film. He sees what other people are doing but he hasn’t the least understanding what they’re really up to. He is going to make wrong moves and not see the right ones. He is going to lose and, if he survives, he is going to regret what happened as long as he lives. (12)
The chess metaphor operates at an even deeper level, which is perhaps why Penn gives it to us in those four separate contexts. In chess, there are no unimportant or inconsequential moves. Unlike poker, cribbage or Monopoly, there is no element of chance; chess is, with one exception, entirely a game of skill. The exception is a slight advantage to white, which gets to make the first move, which means that black’s moves are at least initially responsive. (13) All possible moves are known beforehand; all moves are open. At the start of the game, both players begin with exactly the same pieces in exactly the same positions; each player has the same twenty possible first moves. (14) The possibilities, however, are thenceforth practically without limit: 10 followed by 50 to 120 zeroes, depending how you count.
The one thing hidden in chess is motive: what is the other guy really up to? Players can see the opponent’s pieces and the way the opponent moves them, but if they don’t infer the motive and respond accordingly, they may very well lose. Championship chess games are lost in one of only two ways. One is grounded in failure of imagination or strategy: a player’s pieces are in a position that might result in a win but the player doesn’t see it, doesn’t think far enough ahead, as in the game that Harry regretfully plays over and over. The other is grounded in misconstrued motive: a player is defending against one action while his opponent is engaging in a different action entirely, so the first player loses because he was waging the wrong war in the wrong part of the board. The loser in both cases could say exactly what Harry says at the end of the film, “Shit. Missed. I missed it.”
Harry misses not only the real game being played, but also his role in it. He isn’t the knight errant, off on his own dealing with the ills of the world. He is rather one of the causes of the ills of the world. The reason Tom has Paula take Delly swimming that night Delly finds the fish pecking at Ellman’s face isn’t to keep Delly busy before her trip back west; they have nothing new to hide from her. It is to get Harry out of there when Marv comes in with the latest shipment. If Harry hadn’t been there, Delly wouldn’t have found Marv’s wrecked plane, at least not then, and there would have been no reason to get rid of Delly or anyone else. If Harry hadn’t gotten Quentin riled up Quentin wouldn’t have gone to Florida and gotten murdered. If Harry hadn’t spooked Joey, Joey wouldn’t have gone to Florida to kill Tom, Paula and Harry. It is Harry who disrupts the order of the smuggling operation, at first by chance, then by choice. Harry doesn’t know the difference, and if he did he wouldn’t understand the significance of it. Unlike Sam Spade and those other detectives of yore who are several times referenced in the film, Harry Moseby just isn’t very smart. (15)
What didn’t happen at Maud’s
Harry may not understand the difference between chance and choice, or the need to consider long-term consequences, but Arthur Penn surely does. That’s why Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) figures so prominently in Night Moves.
When Harry visits Ellen at her antique shop she invites him to join her and Charles when they go to see My Night at Maud’s. She is using Charles as beard for her meeting with Marty Heller, and the invitation is part of her deception as well: she knows her Harry. He responds with Night Move’s most famous line: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watching paint dry.” (16)
As Harry later approaches the Magnolia Theater hoping to catch up with Ellen, we see the marquee from one side and the front. He makes a U-turn and we see it from the other side. All say, “Eric Rohmer. My Night at Maud’s.” We see the sign again when Harry follows the car in which Ellen leans over and kisses the lover he hadn’t until that moment known she had.
Shooting and editing in Night Moves are highly economical. Many key facts go by once, often fast. The call from Nick in the opening scene giving Harry Arlene’s case, for example, is barely audible under the music. The background information on Arlene provided by Nick is on a tape Harry plays while he’s driving through nighttime Los Angeles streets to the Magnolia. Harry flies to New Mexico and back, to Florida and back, and to Florida a second time, but Penn never shows a single commercial airplane. Instead, he always has Harry in his guacamole green Mustang in California and in a different rental car each of the three times he’s away: the rental cars are instant synecdoche for air travel.
So why so much talk and imagery having to do with My Night at Maud’s? Why do we hear about the film once and see that Magnolia marquee in eight separate shots? Why did Penn substitute Rohmer’s film for the Claude Chabrol film in Alan Sharp’s original script? (17)
My Night at Maud’s is about a man, never referred to by name in the film itself but generally listed as “Jean-Louis” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in the credits, who encounters an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), in a restaurant. They discuss belief, choice, responsibility and Pascal. Later, Vidal brings Jean-Louis to the apartment of Maud (Françoise Fabian), a physician, where they have dinner and continue the conversation. Vidal gets drunk and Maud sends him home. It is Christmas, the town is covered with new snow, so Maud insists that Jean-Louis, who lives in the hills outside of town, spend the night at her place because the roads are dangerous. He does. They talk, she offers him sex; he declines. The next morning he encounters Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a young woman he has previously seen in church. In the film’s final scene, Jean-Louis and Françoise, now married and with a young son, encounter Maud at the beach. Jean-Louis realizes that not only do Maud and Françoise know one another, but Françoise was the woman Maud’s husband was having an affair with when Maud’s marriage broke up. He decides to say nothing about it because more knowledge about the past will do no good to their relationship in the future. Some secrets, he decides, are better kept and some actions are better not taken.
Jean-Louis is a man who makes choices not so much on the basis of what he wants to do as on the basis of what he believes he ought to do. There is a great deal of discussion in the film about Pascal’s “wager”: if there is the slightest chance that God exists, Pascal argued, then it is to your advantage to act accordingly because by doing so you have eternity to win and therefore your life has meaning; if you do not act accordingly you risk eternal damnation. Vidal tells Jean-Louis that infinity times zero is still zero, but Jean-Louis doesn’t think the chances are zero, therefore he is a believing and practicing Catholic. By extension, Pascal’s argument goes to the meaning of all choice: consequences unlikely to occur but of great moment must be taken seriously because if you choose incorrectly the results could be catastrophic and irreversible.
My Night at Maud’s was released in the U.S. in 1970 and had two Academy Award nominations the following spring. It was influential enough that Chanturgue, a wine from the Auvergne region mentioned in the film, went from being virtually unknown in the USA in 1969 to one of the highest-selling imported white wines in 1971. Night Moves was shot in 1973. If you haven’t seen My Night at Maud’s, it is unlikely you know about the central character’s devotion to an idea or the great amount of screen time devoted to Pascal and moral choice. In that case, it’s just the movie Harry’s wife was at the night he learns she’s been having an affair. But the scene is far more resonant if you know that the central issue of the Rohmer film is making choices when you cannot know their potential consequences. It also helps if you know that My Night at Maud’s is a film about a man who has an opportunity to fuck a beautiful intelligent woman but chooses not to; that Harry’s wife was seeing the film with a man she has been secretly fucking for an unknown time; and that later, when Harry has an opportunity to fuck an attractive woman who is involved with another man and does, he isn’t so much making a choice as being distracted.
The Maltese Falcon is over when Sam Spade solves the case, the last part of which is making sure Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) takes the fall for Thursby’s and Miles Archer’s murders. That’s what Dashiell Hammett’s novel is about and that’s what Huston’s film is about. All the loose ends are tied up, as in proper detective fiction they generally are. But Harry’s loose ends, the confusions in his own life, cannot be tied up because they are who and what he is.
Night Moves isn’t about the case; it’s about the detective, the man. Solving the case is like winning or losing a chess game or making a great catch in a losing football game: in and of itself without meaning, valuable only insofar as it relates to something else. And if there is nothing else, well, you’re just running back and forth or going in circles.
Perhaps the best description of what is going on at the end of Night Moves isn’t in film or fiction, but rather the second half of Robert Creeley’s poem “Bresson’s Movies,” which is also about a knight in distress:
Yet another film
of Bresson’s has
the aging Lancelot with his
awkward armor standing
in a woods, of small trees,
dazed, bleeding, both he
and his horse are,
trying to get back to
the castle, itself of
no great size. It
moved me, that
life was after all
like that. You are
in love. You stand
in the woods, with
a horse, bleeding.
The story is true.
- This essay had its genesis in the vigorous discussion following the 17 November 2009 screening of Night Moves in the Buffalo Film Seminars. My thanks to my partner in the Seminars, Diane Christian, and to the students and auditors who took part in that evening’s conversation. My thanks also to Diane Christian and Elizabeth Finnegan for their close reading of and helpful comments on an earlier draft.
- Roger Ebert, “Night Moves”, March 26, 2006: “It is probably true that if you saw Night Moves several times and took careful notes, you could reconstruct exactly what happens in the movie, but that might be missing the point. I saw it a week ago with an audience at that holy place of the cinema, George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and then I was joined in a discussion with Jim Healy, the assistant curator—we talked for an hour with a room full of moviegoers and we were left with more questions than we started with.” David N. Meyer, author of A Girl and A Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video, in an essay on Night Moves on the website Noir of the Week, May 3, 2009, wrote, “The sequence of narrative incident, that is, the plot, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but so what?” Arthur Penn told Clare Clouzot in 1976, “Vincent Canby in the New York Times said Night Moves was confusing and bad. And then at the end of December, he classified it as one of the twenty best films of the year”, in Michael Chaiken and Paul Cornin, (eds), Arthur Penn Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. p. 104.
- 1977 interview with Jean-Pierre Coursodon (originally in Cinéma, May 1997), in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 112; 1990 interview with Richard Shickel, in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 186.
- Interview with Michel Ciment (originally appeared in Positif, March 1982), in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 159.
- Lars-Olav Beier and Robert Müller, previously unpublished 1994 interview, “Is There Anything Film Can’t Do?”, in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 199.
- Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is shot by someone he apparently knows but whom we are not allowed to see. The scene jars because it is third person (an omniscient camera eye), rather than the observed first person (a camera eye positioned very close to Sam) of the rest of the film. We know that the only reason we’re not seeing who is holding the gun is Huston didn’t turn the camera to let us see what was otherwise unhidden. The scene is not in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, published a decade earlier. Hammett never steps away from Spade’s point of view and, with that one exception, neither does Huston.
- Coursodon interview in Chaiken and Cronin, p. 115.
- Because “they grant themselves the right to violate other people’s secrets, which is very different from a quest for truth and knowledge.” Coursodon interview in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 113.
- Coursodon interview in Chaiken and Cornin, p. 112.
- Paula often changes the subject, avoids intimacy or deflects uncomfortable questions by mimicking voices of such entertainment characters as Groucho Marx or by responding with one-liners. When Harry asks if Delly is “hanging out with Tom” she replies, “What are you, some kind of detective?” When he says, “You are kind of edgy, aren’t you,” she replies, “It’s the heat and the low wages.” He asks why she’s in Florida. “I like the sun. I’m convalescing.” “What from?” “Terrible childhood. My father used to blow his nose with his fingers.” The name she gives Harry for the boy who first made her nipples hard—Billy Dannruther—is the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953).
- Coursodon interview in Chaiken and Cornin, p.116
- I looked through the championship games published on the Internet but found nothing close to the four-move endgame scenario Harry shows Paula. Perhaps that is because it was an endgame that never happened; it was only a might-have-been endgame. The real game veered in an entirely different direction however many moves earlier. If anyone reading this does know the real game to which Harry refers, please let me know so I can correct this note in the future.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-move_advantage_in_chess. January 3, 2010. Some chess analysts argue that if the players are evenly matched and neither makes an error the best black can hope for is a draw. White’s advantage exists only in single games, not in matches. In matches the players alternate colors in each game so the opening advantage evens out.
- Any of the eight pawns can move one or two spaces. Either of the two knights can move over the pawns and turn left or right.
- As, for example, in his stupid gay teasing of Charles, Ellen’s assistant, after which he laughs to himself in obvious satisfaction, and his fondling of Ellen’s breast in full view of Charles and a client. Even dumber was his having sex and then actually sleeping with Paula when he had every reason to think Tom was only two cabins away: lousy behavior in a houseguest and what did he think might happen in the morning?
- The line was quoted, for example, in Rohmer’s New York Times obituary, January 11, 2010, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/12/movies/12rohmer.html?hpw
- Jean-Pierre Coursodon said to Penn, “Here are three superimposed three-way relationships: Moseby’s client’s adulterous affair, mentioned on the tape, Harry’s wife’s affair as she is in the theater with her lover, and the triangular relationships in Ma Nuit chez Maud.” Penn responded, “This is actually the reason why I chose Rohmer’s film. Sharp suggested a Chabrol film in his script, I forget which one, but it made no difference as far as the psychological point was concerned as Harry is no ‘intellectual.’ But the Rohmer reference does add something thematically.” Coursodon interview in Chaiken and Cornin, pp. 113-114.