70s cinema was at its absolute best when it birthed softly nihilistic, introspective films where the protagonist lived within moral ambiguity and hard shades of grey – wherein this picture, Gene Hackman gives his finest, most low-key performance as a former football player turned private investigator who takes on a case of a missing girl that lands him in Florida from LA, and uncovers a well-layered and richly defined plot of smuggling, lies, and deception all the while discovering who he really is, as well as the world around him.
With a taut script from Alan Sharp, a groovy score by Michael Small, director Arthur Penn crafts a remarkably quiet film; which plays more like a documentary where the camera just follows Hackman through his journey, all scenes from the film are of Hackman’s point of view, and there are not any overt, showy set-pieces or flash edits, popular music; the film just lives.
Sharp’s screenplay, coupled with Penn’s vision and the actors performing his written words, is perfect. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue that have staying power, so much of the characters are revealed through the brief, yet potent, exchanges. This truly is a masterclass in writing.
A lot can be said for Hackman, being one of the longstanding true craftsmen of his profession; being one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen. In this picture, he is noticeably muted and brings a striking weariness to the role, he is not the self-righteous and volatile Hackman, he is just here to observe, and internalize his emotions. He gives a remarkably raw performance that is more about self-discovery than anything.
Harris Yulin, Jennifer Warren, Edwards Binns, Kenneth Mars, Janet Ward, John Crawford, Susan Clark, James Woods, and Melanie Griffith round up the supporting cast, and Hackman plays off of each one magnificently. The characters in the film are very real, as are their homes, places of work and so on. There is a deep-seated reality to the film, where it doesn’t take place in the movie world, it takes place in reality.
The film’s narrative is remarkable, not only with the overall detective storyline, but also with how defined Hackman’s character and life is; and how his two worlds begin to blend together; where he is just not solving the case, but also solving who he is as well.
NIGHT MOVES is a film that came out at the right time, the mid-70s, while everything was in flux, and people were just trying to understand how to be in the world. In actuality, the film is timeless with its themes, making an excellent time capsule of a picture that came from an era of film, that is so universally well regarded. 70s cinema might just be the best decade of American cinema, and NIGHT MOVES is one of the best films to come from that time and place.