When critics and theorists debated the auteur theory it often rested on how important the director's vision was for those who believed in auteurism and how undervalued the contribution of others had been for those who didn't believe in it. The most significant argument in the American context was between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, slugging it out in articles in the early sixties (Kael did most of the slugging), and then developing their position at length later in The American Cinema, by Sarris in 1968, and Pauline Kael in The Citizen Kane Book in 1971. Our purpose isn't to get too embroiled in these debates (nor even the auteur theory), but to suggest that the central difference between these positions will be important to us here. Sarris's book announced that great films are made by great directors no matter the material to hand, and Kael's claim was that a film like Citizen Kane, so categorically credited to Orson Welles' genius, relied immensely on Hermann J. Mankiewicz's script work. Many saw Kael's piece as a hatchet job on Welles's reputation, written at a time when the great American director couldn't easily find funding and was reliant on European money to get films made at all, making The Immortal Story in 1968 and F for Fake in 1974. We wouldn't wish in looking at Night Moves, directed by Arthur Penn, to undermine at all Penn's contribution, but what we do wish to do is point up the importance of Gene Hackman in the leading role, and even more especially Alan Sharp's script. New Hollywood was very understandably seen as a great era for auteurism in American film: Scorsese, Altman, Peckinpah, Penn, Cassavetes, Friedkin, Ashby, Coppola, Malick, Lynch...the list is long and could be much longer. How easy would it be now to put together a similar one, and just how strong would that list be? Fincher, Nolan, James Gray, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson. The list could go on but for how much longer? The seventies names could continue quite interestingly for a while...Brian De Palma, Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Elaine May, Barbara Loden, Jerry Schatzberg...Yet at the same time, this great directorial influx coincided especially with great cinematographers Zsigmond, Kovacs, Willis, Chapman, Weller, Hall but also less commonly acknowledged, scriptwriters who gave to the material a sensibility that we might assume is their own as we don't always find it in the director's work elsewhere. It is evident in Jo Heims script for Breezy, Adrian Joyce's for Five Easy Pieces, Robert Towne's for Chinatown and The Last Detail, Joan Tewkesbury's for Thieves Like Us and Nashville, Paul Shrader's for Taxi Driver, Paddy Chayevsky's for The Hospital and Network, James Toback's For The Gambler. But one of the most consistently fine and important scriptwriters working in America in the early to mid-seventies was Alan Sharp, and especially for three scripts: Ulzana's Raid, The Hired Hand and Night Moves.
Near the end of the film, Harry Moseby's (Hackman) wife sees him off at the airport in LA as he flies to Florida and says "if you don't go you can't come back" a line from Sharp's great sixties novel A Green Tree from Gedde and yet the film's most memorable one is probably from the beginning of the film: his wife is off to see a film and says it is by Eric Rohmer. Moseby replies he saw one of those films once: "it was like watching paint dry." It is a good line and in its own way a fine encapsulation of Rohmer's brilliantly slow-paced accounts of human interaction where nothing seems to be happening, but in the original script Sharp had put Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker whose films are leisurely paced as well yet with far too many murderous plots to pass for synonymous with slowness. Penn reckoned Rohmer should replace Chabrol and the line has become famous. We offer the anecdote to indicate that even the greatest of scripts show film as a collaborative medium, and offer a second example to cement the fact. Robert Towne offered in Chinatown a happy ending in script form that Roman Polanski darkened and which for many made it the masterpiece it has become. If Sharp and Towne as two of the finest scriptwriters in early seventies Hollywood could have their scripts tweaked and improved by their directors, this suggests, however, not that the screenwriter is of little importance, or that the director is all-important, but that film lends itself to collaboration within the authorial. It seems to us most of the best films are made by the best directors, indicating that auteurism as a theory has validity, but to deny film is the work of many individuals would be to defy the reality out of which cinema is made, and most especially during a decade where so many collaborators had visions of their own that could augment the director's.
And yet what holds the film together, what gives the film its vision, we believe, rests on Hackman's persona (as readily as his performance) and undeniably Sharp's script, which possesses a density that is manifold and that we will thus explore: its expository complexity, the subtlety of its aporias and the suggestiveness of its thematic. When Cinephilia and Beyond put online Sharp's script as an exemplary instance of great screenwriting we are unlikely to disagree, yet we need to do more than praise the work to understand it. In the first instance, there is obviously the plot: a tale so complicated that Roger Ebert admitted one reason why he wasn't explaining the story when he reviewed the film was because he couldn't be sure he understood it. Numerous others have suggested it benefits from multiple viewing to pick it apart, no one more so than Sven Mikulic: "Arthur Penn's 'Night Moves' demands, and deserves, multiple viewings, and every single one of them is equally rewarding." (Cinephilia and Beyond) Here LA detective Harry Moseby receives work through another agency where a never-quite has-been Hollywood actress wants Moseby to find her sixteen-year-old runaway, promiscuous daughter Dilly (Melanie Griffith), who he finds living with her stepfather Tom and girlfriend Paula down in Florida. She is reluctant to leave but while there, Dilly goes out on the boat with the others and, while diving, comes across a crashed plane with a body inside it. They leave a marker for the coastguard and Dilly, reacting very strongly to what she has seen, the next day agrees to return to LA and back to her mother, who appears to have hired Moseby not out of great love for her daughter but out of financial need: her late husband has predicated her allowance on the basis of Dilly remaining in her care. Meanwhile, it turns out that the man killed in the plane is someone both Dilly and her mother slept with and it's with another stuntman that Dilly meets her end, dying in an onset car crash that the stuntman survives. Moseby suspects one of Dilly's lovers, Quentin (James Woods), a mechanic who had good reason to dislike the stuntman who died in the plane (he went off with Dilly and beat him up), and could then have fiddled with the car too. All this is speculation on Moseby's part but gives him reason enough to go back down to Florida where he finds Quentin already there, but dead in the quay, and the stepfather, Tom, admitting that Quentin was going to start blabbing as he lunges at Moseby and they start a scrap. Moseby wins, the stepfather is unconscious and he forces Paula to take the boat out, aware that the marker they dropped when Dilly found the plane had nothing to do with the coastguard but has now to do with smuggling Pre-Colombian artefacts into the country. They go out into the ocean, Paula retrieves the artefact from the wreckage, but just as she does so a plane circles, someone starts shooting at Moseby on the boat, the plane ends up careering into Paula who gets killed, and the plane sinks with the pilot in it. Moseby sees that it is none other than the second stuntman, Joey, a man who not only seems to be struggling for his life but also appears to be trying to say something. But what? Had he intended to shoot at Moseby or perhaps the stepfather, and for what reason because he was involved in the smuggling operation along with the other stuntman, revenge for Merv or perhaps for Quentin?
Thus we begin to move from the categoricals of a story that are complicated enough, to the inferences that can make the film a lot more complex still. When Moseby tackles Quentin and accuses him of taking out Merv and then Dilly, because she had worked out what happened to Merv, this is speculation on his part that the story doesn't quite prove. The person to benefit most from her death is her mother, who gets to keep all the money, a point Moseby makes when he goes to visit her late in the film But this doesn't mean she hired someone (namely Quentin) to kill her, just that she would have a motive for having done so. But there is no suggestion that she has masterminded a plot that starts with Harry finding out where she is, taking her back and then arranging a small part for her on a film where Quentin can tamper with the breaks. And yet what are we to make of Nick, the owner of the detective agency who gives Moseby the job and who introduces him early in the film to the merits of Pre-Columbian art? Where has he managed to attain such treasures? When Gary Arnold reckoned "the fatal weakness is Alan Sharp's screenplay, a pointlessly murky, ambiguous variation on conventional private eye themes...we overlook some pretty awesome loopholes and absurdities in the story itself" (Washington Post), we might wonder whether Arnold is confusing holes in the plot with spaces available within it. Plot holes come in various shapes and sizes, and include the illogical, the improbable, the implausible and the irrational. It is illogical as critics have noted writing on Armageddon to train up drillers as astronauts rather than the other way round. (Movie Plot Holes) A driller's job is a fairly straightforward task; an astronaut's rather more complex. If you are in a hurry (and Armageddon is a film working on a tight dramatic schedule as a meteorite hurtles towards earth), then surely better to get astronauts to learn a few drilling skills. It is implausible in Inglorious Basterds that even though Hugo Stiglitz was famous for killing a handful of Nazi officers, before defecting to the US, when the basterds arrive at a bar full of Nazis none of them recognises this very well known man. (College Times) In Independence Day it is improbable that the computer virus the heroes develop to take down the aliens would be inclined to take out alien technology, especially as, critics have noted, viruses which work on PCs don't work on Macs. (College Times) Finally, in Collateral it is irrational, hitman Vincent takes out various people hiring a driver he takes to each destination even though the man has nothing to do with Vincent's actions and is only a temporary hired hand. Terms like artistic license and suspension of disbelief are often called upon to justify such moments, and, on occasion, a deeper and more interesting problem is addressed even if the ostensibles of the story can seem a little weak. We forgive the flaws.
However, while Arnold insists on seeing plot holes in Night Moves we generally think they are nothing of the sort. They are instead aporias, spaces in the narrative forcing us to speculate on the motives of characters within the story. It doesn't seem to be a hole that we don't know exactly how responsible Quentin is for the plane crash and the car crash, though he happens to be the whizz mechanic who wouldn't have much difficulty fiddling with the engines and the breaks. Hackman accuses him of both and Quentin denies it. When he ends up dead in Florida he presumably knows already the people he is confronting, but have they been friends or enemies, and have they moved from being one to the other in the wake of Quentin crippling Marv's plane - a plane carrying the vital Pre-Columbian artefact from Mexico to Florida for Paula and the stepfather? How involved is the mother in the entire case; has she just set in motion the story by employing Harry; her only interest getting her daughter back? When Delly returns does the mother nevertheless to a deal with Quentin to make sure she won't be running away again, and won't ever cheat on Quentin again? Is that why she ends up dead in a car crash, or is Joey more responsible than he is letting on? And what about Nick, who passes the case onto Harry and who has artefacts in his office? We might wonder whether he is involved in the smuggling business or just buying the Pre-Columbian pieces when he gets the chance. Out of these speculations, we might assume some are probable, others irrational, still others illogical, and some implausible. However, while in the examples we have earlier given, the illogical, the improbable etc. are categorically so because they are not working with aporia. The errors of the plot are clear to see as we work out the story. By the conclusion, any inferences made are usually proved to be right or wrong (who the killer happens to be, how they escaped from a situation, whether the woman was innocent or involved) but Night Moves is a thriller that leaves us with many inferences after the event. When Harry, pointing a gun, confronts Tom over Quentin's death, Tom suggests that Quentin was innocent; that he' had come down to Florida saying he was going to the coastguard about Marv, refusing to believe Marv's death was an accident. As Tom speaks he accelerates the boat they are in trying to wrong-foot Harry, then lunges at him. We assume that he is telling the truth here, but if so Harry's assumption that Quintin is responsible for the two deaths is no longer valid, but we might still wonder how involved Quentin has been in the case more generally. Equally, if he is innocent of Marv's death it would be unlikely he'd be responsible for Delly's. So that leaves us wondering who is. The most likely candidate is stunt coordinator Joey, who was driving the car, and it is Joey who turns up in the plane after Paula and Harry take the boat out into the ocean and starts firing at Harry. Yet does he know it is Harry or does he think it is Tom, surely the man he would expect to be out on the boat unless he knows Harry has already arrived in Florida? But then of course he does in an earlier scene Harry visits Joey in the latter's caravan, tells him he thinks Quentin's responsible and more or less says he reckons Florida is where he will find him. Has Joey flown down from New Mexico to Florida as revenge (but towards who and for whom), or to get the treasure for himself?
The film clearly leaves us with many questions and any attempt to answer them has to take into account the irrational, the illogical, the improbable and the implausible, but instead of these being accusations we level at a film which makes its plot clear only for us to find that it doesn't add up, Sharp's screenplay asks us to try and add things up ourselves, leaving us to question whether something is plausible or logical based on our own inferences within the aporias of the story. Covering a vast amount of space (Los Angeles, New Mexico and Florida locationally and narratively, and the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico narratively), when we work out the story we can also try to make sense of the geography, all the while attending to the offscreen assumptions that we are making about the plot. When Marv's plane crashed in the ocean near Florida, where had he come from? Presumably, he flew down from New Mexico to the Yucatan peninsula, but then how does Joey near the end of the film get down to Florida? Has he piloted all the way from New Mexico in what might be a proper hole in the story a categorical implausibility as one arm is in plaster? And how then does he fire the gun with one hand while presumably still steering the plane with the other; not impossible perhaps but not easy either? We might assume that a person greedy enough to get their hands on a half million pounds worth of Mexican history would do almost anything to get it, but would he take such a risk just to seek revenge on the death of others? The former seems much more probable than the latter, within the potential implausibility of him piloting the plane at all.
Yet all this speculation is also beside the point. Not because Sharp isn't interested in the story (or why tell it so intricately?) but because he is interested in more than the story. One reason why we have suggested that the film indicates an auteurism that needs to be much greater than the director's imprint rests on Sharp as a screenwriter fascinated by what the story serves. This doesn't just seem to be Penn's input but relevant to Sharp's output. Brought up in Greenock, he worked on the shipyards before in the mid-sixties publishing A Green Tree in Gedde and following it with The Wind Shifts, before moving to the US and focusing on screenplays. Yet his film work usually retained a literary aspect that isn't only evident in the lines that still echo noir: "who's winning." "Nobody - one side is losing more slowly than the other." No, it resides above all else in the idea that for all the intricacies of plot, the plot really isn't that important because what matters more are the characters, and most especially the emotional reality of Moseby. It is as though the detective work isn't quite a profession, and the Delly case not quite an obsession, but that both are part of a bigger problem with Moseby's personality. Hence the sub-plot concerning his wife's affair proves vital to our understanding that while the film has an epistemological problem (working out the story) at the same time the central character has an emotional problem that insists he must continue investigating after there is really nothing left for him to do. He has been hired to find Delly; he finds her. Job finished. But not for Harry who insists he must find out the truth, an indefinable goal that incorporated a search for his real father in the past (Sharp was the son of a single mum and adopted after six weeks), and spying on his wife in the present. When he confronts her lover, Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), Heller turns it into a psychological problem for Harry rather than an ethical problem for him. That could just be Marty's bad faith as he refuses to take responsibility for his actions, but that doesn't seem to be the way the film sees it. Marty knows a bit about Harry's past and says that is what Harry loves doing: tracking people down and trailing them. As we find out later in the film, that is exactly what he did with his real father, finding an old man on a bench who he observes but then doesn't engage with him. Later, on the boat with Paula, she tells him he is asking the wrong questions his search for the truth contains an Oedipal-like path to his own origins. Yet, unlike Oedipus, the truth won't be revealed in all its appalling incestuousness, but in its banality. The mysterious father he searched out appeared so lacking in substance and prowess that all Harry saw was an ageing figure who had nothing to offer him. The film indicates that the person who does (his wife Ellen), still loves him, sees her affair with Marty as a respite from solitude, and hopes that Harry can get over his epistemological burden, accepting the reality of his emotionally damaged psyche. If we talk of the screenplay's importance it rests on this: that Sharp wants the plot less as a series of noir tropes updated to the seventies, but to find in these tropes a quarrying, querying search into the obscurity of somebody's thinking within the context of troubled times.
This is exactly where Penn comes in, seeing the film as an examination indirectly of the Watergate era. But before addressing Penn's important contribution in theme and form, we need to say a few words first about Hackman, and the distinction we briefly made about the performance and the persona. An actor can give a brilliant performance without having much of a persona, that the singularity of the performance is impressive but doesn't contribute to a broader category that in this instance we will call the Hackmanesque. When F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar for Amadeus it was an impressive thespian display but essentially an isolated one. He might have offered in this eighties film a much better performance than an obviously less impressive actor like Tom Cruise, but Cruise in Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money and Cocktail, was building a persona that could sum up a type associated with Cruise rather than just a character. We can view it as a kind of thespian chiasmus. F Murray Abraham is Salieri; Maverick is Tom Cruise. It is partly why we don't tend to remember Cruise was Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July. It isn't really part of his persona even if the performance was a determined attempt to stretch his skills. It is why Pauline Kael's famous, waspish remark about Clint Eastwood missed the point. Eastwood "isn't an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He'd have to do something before we could consider him bad at it". (New Yorker) Eastwood mastered the persona so well that acting was hardly required, hence the reverse chiasmus. Hackman is of course a very fine actor, alongside De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson and Hoffman, all character actors who because of the complexity of the scripts and the thematic fascinations of the directors, could become major stars, all of them creating personae closer to our living reality than generic expectation. Sharp may have said, "all the things I've written are pastiche, and I get work because I'm a reliable craftsman. It's like being a plumber: you come in, do a tidy job, and you're not a prick to deal with, so people hire you again." (Cinephilia and Beyond) Yet he also believed that "Night Moves, was an attempt to use the classic detective format, the private eye, and then set him in a landscape in which he was unable to solve the case." (Literature/Film Quarterly) Sharp clearly knew the codes of the noir genre but working with an actor like Hackman, Penn and Sharp needn't so much subvert them as invest them with the messiness of life. Weaving its way through the story, his wife's affair reflects his need for truth as readily as emotion, but also shows an actor's need to express characters who go beyond the generic while at the same time playing more than the character. If Abraham plays Salieri in Amadeus, he plays the character, but then how often do we see an actor who has a persona nevertheless playing a type. Bogart is the archetypal detective; John Wayne the typical western figure. In each instance, the persona plays very close to the archetypal: they don't quite play themselves, they play into type. It is why both actors usually worked within a relatively narrow range. You couldn't easily cast Bogart in a western or a musical (though he occasionally managed romantic comedy as in Sabrina), and you couldn't easily put Wayne into anything other than a western or a war movie. In the seventies, the great actors found a place between the character and the type; partly why we propose the persona. In an excellent piece, The Trouble with Harry', Martin Auty explores the nature of that image. "To follow such a consummately low key performance [in The Conversation as Harry Caul] with that of the middle-aged private-eye in Night Moves was for Hackman a question of merging one 'Harry into the next." (Movies of the Seventies) If we accept that Hackman's three finest performances are in The French Connection, The Conversation and Night Moves (and add the importance of Prime Cut, Scarecrow and The French Connection II), there isn't an easy generic link between them, even if we can easily see a persona developing out of them. True, he plays cops and detectives well, as Bogart did before him, but he doesn't personify the detective as Bogart did. He represents the everyday rather than the archetypal, evident in Coppola's claim that he was ideal casting in The Conversation "because of his utterly everyday appearance, the most important feature of the character", and Auty's own insistence that "in appearance Hackman has always seemed middle-aged and his looks might best be described as 'everyday'." (Movies of the Seventies) Bogart was not known for his looks, but he wasn't quite cast for them either what mattered more was the world-weary delivery, the personification of tired knowingness.
Hackman is more consistently out of his depth in Night Moves than Bogart would ever have been, but this appears to us less naivety in itself, than the complexity of the world that he finds himself in. The point of Night Moves isn't that Harry is too dumb to solve the case, but that the case is too complex for anyone to solve it, and especially someone who is searching in the case for a truth that he cannot quite find in his life. What the film suggests is that he needs to accept love more than he needs to find truth, to come to terms with what he has lost that he cannot get back (his fractured childhood), and accept what he has temporarily lost and can get back (his wife). As Sharp says, "nevertheless, it was a time for a certain kind of consciousness, which I'm calling American: a recognition that the world is more complex than what it was believed to be and that there are things that just cannot be solved. Also, the understanding that Americans will not always be able to triumph in all things undertaken Moseby was the personification of that idea." (Film/Literature Quarterly) The film needed a star who wasn't world-weary but that the world itself was weary and nobody could contain the troubled nature of the US at the time. Hackman, like Nicholson, especially, and to a lesser, or rather different degree, Hoffman, Pacino and De Niro, could reflect very well that confusion.
Which allows us to return to the film as an examination of the post-Watergate era in tone. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the film when it came out, reckoned in relation to an interview Penn gave in Sight and Sound where Penn said that the film's obscurity is deliberate, that this is just nonsense. "...This isn't just a detective story, folks, it's an allegory of. Of what? American moral decay, of course, and especially you've guessed it Watergate." (Before My Eyes) Perhaps at the time, Kauffmann was too close to the period to see just how many films can now seem permeated by a post-Watergate mood. Many watching it in the context of Bogart films that came before it can see now that it seems closer to All the President's Men than to the albeit serpentine The Big Sleep. Penn directs the film off-kilter, with Dedee Allen's editing too tight by conventional standards. Near the beginning, after Harry converses with his wife's colleague at the art gallery, the film cuts sharply to Harry's client in mid-discussion. No transition shots, no establishing shot of her house, no preliminaries into the conversation. Such cuts give to the film an edgy, off-centre feeling that everyone is playing catch-me-up, just as the end of the film creates an obverse paranoia through the long shots that show Harry stranded on the boat in the middle of the ocean. We could have stayed with Harry's difficulties, but instead Penn turns Harry's determination to get the boat moving in the direction back to shore as a futile effort next to the wide-open sea. While the former scene makes us feel Harry's inability to keep up, the closing one indicates that trying to do so leaves one utterly stranded: trying to make sense of the givens of a situation leaves him eventually in a situation that shows the magnitude of his futility. The film doesn't echo Watergate precisely, but what it does very well is capture an America that cannot will itself into resolution. From a certain angle, one could see the Watergate scandal, and its subsequent successful investigation, as an example of American can-do journalism, of American society, but All the President's Men, didn't see it that way. Watergate was one more example of Power corrupting and of too many shadows behind the scenes. Watergate became a byword for the assassinations, riots, wars and suppressions that had been central to American culture from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Someone, like Kauffmann, arguing too literally, won't see Watergate all over the film, but the permeating mood suggests its impact, just as Bonnie and Clyde too caught the burgeoning 'assassinative' nature of American culture in the wake of Kennedy and Malcolm X's death, and with King and Bobby Kennedy round the corner.
We can credit Penn with the execution of the material, so to speak, but nobody's presence seems more to impact on the work than Sharp's. One might assume this to be the norm: isn't the script the blueprint upon which the film is made? Yet it is the rare script (Chinatown, Being John Malkovich, Taxi Driver, Network, The Social Network) that offers a proper ground-plan. Sharp wrote at least three such scripts and maybe not a finer one than Night Moves. While Towne's Chinatown screenplay has become properly textbook with numerous screenwriting manuals including books by Robert McKee and Syd Field using it as a perfect example, Night Moves is too often forgotten. There will be a reason for this Towne's script is brilliantly complete; Sharp's ostensibly unfinished. However, while Towne's work is all of a piece, Sharp's, as we have noted, works a looser weave all the better to generate spaces within the material that needn't be seen as plot holes but as structuring absences that we can try and work out without quite being able to do so. Such scriptwriting is much harder to teach than Towne's for Polanski's film because it doesn't only reside in the structure on the page but the capacity for someone to invest in the spaces that remain empty. It also suggests that there are scriptwriters whose vision as writers cannot easily be subsumed into the work as craft but exists simultaneously as vision. There is no need to praise Sharp's script to the detriment of Towne's work, nor vice versa, but to see that not only as we proposed initially, can there be other auteurs in the mix that the screenwriter is a valid auteur but that the writer can exist in the work in distinct and distinctive ways. Certainly Sharp's script for The Hired Hand is much tighter (just as Towne's for Shampoo is much looser), suggesting that the screenwriter can offer a vision or they can offer structure, though they needn't be categorically differentiated. Often auteur theory has little place for the scriptwriter, and screenwriting manuals have little place for the visionary, with auteur theory emphasising the vision of the auteur to the detriment of the scriptwriter, and the screenwriting manuals playing up the structure to the detriment of vision. Watching Night Moves we believe that the film possesses more than any other Penn film a vision within it that is at least as powerful as that of the director's. In A Green Tree from Gedde a character says to another Harry, discussing loneliness and love, "...love offers the only form of annexation, of incorporation in yourself of another person that will suffice, and once that starts then you begin to know about love and how hard it is. For soon you realise, unless solipsism has you completely, that the "other' you are pursuing, is pursuing you, you are 'other'". Harry pursues truth and arrives at the most horrible of solitudes, lost, alone, in the vast ocean. It is a vision indeed, and one can we trace more easily to Sharp's earlier work than to Penn's.
© Tony McKibbin