I recently discovered a favorite movie from the 1970s was available on TCM online. There were a number of decent mysteries made in that decade. Some were quite successful, like Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, and the Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express. Others flew lower on the radar, like The Last of Sheila, The Late Show, and my rediscovery, Night Moves.
Night Moves stars Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby, a former star football player who now has a one-chair detective agency, Moseby Confidential. A large agency has been after him to join them, and Moseby’s wife, Ellen (Susan Clark), wants him to take the position since being on his own means days and nights when he’s away. She’ll regularly go to foreign films with her assistant Nick (Kenneth Mars) from the antiques store she owns, with Harry’s blessing. (There’s the briefest suggestion the assistant is gay, though nothing overt since this was the ‘70s.) The agency calls Harry for a job they don’t want, tracking down Delly, the 16-year-old daughter of a faded Hollywood actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward). Harry starts in on the case, but is sidetracked when he discovers his wife has been having an affair.
With a lead from Quentin, a mechanic that Delly had taken up with, Harry heads to a movie location and meets up with stunt coordinator Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) and hotshot stunt pilot Marv (Anthony Costello). It seems Delly has decided to have affairs with anyone who was with her mother, and the stuntmen point Harry to Arlene’s second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), who runs a boat and seaplane charter service in the Florida Keys. At Iverson’s office, he meets Paula (Jennifer Warren), who leads Harry to Iverson’s rambling beachfront home where Delly is staying. At first Delly refuses to go home with Harry, until a shocking discovery changes her mind. Harry brings Delly home and, thinking the case is over, he starts to put things back together with Ellen. Then a tragedy makes him realize he’d been played and there was a whole different scenario happening that he missed.
Rather than an adaptation of a book, Night Moves was an original script written by a long-time screenwriter originally from Scotland, Alan Sharp. Most of the work at the beginning and end of his career (he passed away in 2013) was in television, but he did several decent screenplays in between, including Ulzana’s Raid (directed by Robert Aldrich), The Osterman Weekend (an adaption of a Robert Ludlum novel, directed by Sam Peckinpah), and his final movie script was the adaptation of Rob Roy starring Liam Neeson. Night Moves is a different sort of detective mystery, soft boiled rather than hard, interested more in character at first until it reveals a plot that has a killer of a surprise at the end.
Guiding the film to the screen was Arthur Penn, one of the iconic directors of the 1960s. After starting in television in the 1950s, like many others of that era he moved to movies. His first film was The Left-Handed Gun, a retelling of the story of Billy the Kid, starring Paul Newman. He followed that with an incredible string of movies: The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, among others. Following Night Moves, the magic left Penn’s career. His next movie was the major box office bomb of a western, The Missouri Breaks. After that he made some minor films in the 1980s and was back in television in the ‘90s before retiring. He passed away in 2010. But he was still on top of his game in 1975, and Night Moves is a taut hour and three-quarters that shifts into a higher gear in its last 20 minutes.
At the time of Night Move’s release, Hackman was at the height of his leading man career. He’d first come to prominence working with Penn on Bonnie and Clyde, then took off in the 1970s starting with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, then started the all-star disaster genre with Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure, along with what’s generally considered to be Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Conversation. Night Moves was a bit overshadowed in 1975, as that was also the year French Connection II came out, considered by some to be better than the original.
While she’s not well remembered today, Susan Clark was a major actress in the 1960s and ‘70s. Originally from Canada, she started in TV there and in Britain, even doing “The Benny Hill Show” for a season. She made her way to Hollywood, landing a contract with Universal, where she did TV and movies, including Coogan’s Bluff and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. The same year as Night Moves, Clark won a Primetime Emmy for lead actress in a drama special, playing the title role in a biographic picture about athlete Babe Didrickson Zaharias. She was paired in that TV film with actor and former football player Alex Karras, and life imitated art a few years later when they married in 1980. She and Karras did the TV comedy “Webster” together which ran for six seasons in the 1980s. Clark and Karras remained married for 32 years until his death in 2012.
One thing that marks Night Moves is the number of supporting character actors who went on to well-known careers. A couple were already well-established. Edward Binns is one of those faces and voices you immediately know, who’d had roles in 12 Angry Men, Patton, The Verdict, North by Northwest and 177 other projects recorded by IMDb. He’s beat in volume by Kenneth Mars, who among his 230 credits are The Producers and Young Frankenstein. But what stands out are those beginning their careers. Quentin the mechanic is played by James Woods, and in a small scene with a near fight in a bar you have Max Gail who’d go on to a long career as a supporting actor, best know as the slightly dim Sgt. Wojo on “Barney Miller.” Clark’s love interest is played by Harris Yulin, who had a gift for heavies in films like Clear and Present Danger and series like “Le Femme Nikita” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a role credited as “Boy” was Dennis Duggan who’s had decent career as a comedic actor. But the standout is an 18-year-old Melanie Griffith playing Delly. She’d only had two essentially extra roles before she did Night Moves, and while she’s still a raw talent in the movie, she holds her own with Hackman.
If you like a good mystery and have access to TCM online (it’s a part of HBO Max), you may want to check out Night Moves.