Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir (2019) Matthew Asprey Gear
Trade paperback, 178 pages
(includes photos, appendix [film credits], notes and references, index)
Most books written about individual films play it safe in two ways. First, such works are usually reserved for enormously popular titles that have stood the test of time. You’ll find books (often more than one) devoted to such classics as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and any number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Second, these books frequently begin with the germination of an idea, usually in the mind of a writer, screenwriter, or director, following it as it develops, picks up steam, starts and stops, stalls, and finally arrives to a thundering popular and/or critical ovation, either upon its initial release, or years (even decades) later. Night Moves (1975) was never an enormously popular movie, but it has slowly gained stature in the 40-plus years since its release, particularly in the film noir community. Matthew Asprey Gear’s new book not only celebrates a work fans refuse to relegate to the basement of forgotten crime films, it examines the film’s genesis in a somewhat unorthodox, yet fascinating, way.
Although it is a book, and not a film, Moseby Confidential works as all good film noir movies do, laying bare the fundamental weaknesses and anxieties of its characters in the pursuit of a goal. In this case, however, we’re not talking about the film’s fictional characters as much as its creators and ultimately the American audiences of the 1970s.
Take the young Scottish novelist Alan Sharp, who wrote the screenplay for Night Moves. Sharp, a young man who decided to visit America just as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, absorbed such conflict and turmoil into his own fatalistic background, finding an appropriate voice for the ‘70s in his Hollywood screenplays. Director Arthur Penn, who began his career in theatre and television, never felt comfortable being forced to make artistic compromises in Hollywood, despite his successes with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and other films. Although already well-established as a major American actor, Gene Hackman was going through an unhappy marriage while making Night Moves. Never one for small talk, Hackman frequently distanced himself from the cast and crew, at times intimidating his co-stars. All three of these men were professionals, highly sensitive, and (perhaps tellingly) sons of absent fathers, yet together they created one of the cornerstone noir titles of the 1970s.
Gear ventures into risky territory early, devoting the first 40 pages (of a book containing only 138 pages of text) primarily to the lives of Sharp and Penn before getting to the meat of the film. Yet the gamble works. Gear takes us inside the anxieties, angst, and fears of these men, showing us how their sympathetic and sometimes wildly differing interpretations of the script evolved into the final product. Add to this Gear’s examination of how the tastes of American movie audiences during the ‘70s were changing, “turning away from the present to the comforts of an imagined past.” Sharp, a keen observer of his new American surroundings, reacts with a script he describes as a “threnody for [the] loss of American innocence” in the post-1960s era. By the time Gear gets to the actual production of Night Moves, the reader understands that the film can be nothing other than an examination of the character of Harry Moseby (Hackman), a man who has lost touch (or never actually had it to begin with) with his era, his surroundings, and himself.
Fortunately, Gear takes advantage of several archival interviews with Penn (1922-2010) and Sharp (1934-2013), as well as more recent discussions with their family members, giving the reader a well-rounded look at these men and their work, especially their collaboration on Night Moves, and their disagreements. For Penn, who wasn’t able to complete his 1958 film The Left Handed Gun according to his own plan, studio interference disgusted him. Sharp, also disgruntled at how his previous scripts had been mishandled, hoped with Night Moves (originally called The Dark Tower) to create the story of a detective trying not only to solve a case but also to solve himself.
Hackman’s Harry Moseby is a former football star who’s aged out of pro sports, transitioning into a not-very-good detective. Harry is hired by former B-movie queen Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to find her 16-year-old runaway daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith). Moseby locates Delly in the Florida Keys, where she’s living with her stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford) and Iverson’s girlfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren). Moseby isn’t quite sure what kind of relationship the three have going, becoming even more confused after a few cryptic conversations with Paula. Besides the case, Harry’s life is so fractured he doesn’t even realize his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him. Perhaps even more tragic is the fact that Harry is also unaware that he’s losing touch not only with his wife, but with himself and his place in a world, clinging to a past that no longer exists.
Night Moves is not a film that leads the viewer by the hand to arrive at a tidy denouement, but neither is it a vague exercise in open-ended existentialism. By the time we arrive at the ending, we know who committed the crime(s), but the bigger payoff comes with the realization that the film is primarily a portrait of America’s identity, confusion, and lack of direction, personified in the character of Harry Moseby. Gear shows the reader how Hackman was the perfect choice for the role, even if he didn’t exactly endear himself to the film’s cast and crew.
Gear also has no delusions that Night Moves is a perfect film, refusing to shy away from discussing its flaws and weaknesses. Other challenges (besides creative disagreements between Sharp and Penn) include the film’s post-production problems, lack of promotion by Warner Bros, and just plain bad timing for any movie released within days of the opening of Jaws.
Moseby Confidential covers many of the other production stories and challenges such books typically cover, but perhaps Gear’s greatest victory is in not wearing out his welcome. The reader is never bogged down in the day-to-day minutia of shooting schedules, rewrites, and the shenanigans of actors behaving badly that fill far too many books devoted to individual films. Moseby Confidential gives us an honest look at the people who created Night Moves, how the elements of their personalities found their way into the movie, and how it all worked, even if audiences are late to the party.
I always tell people that when you look at all the individuals involved in making a movie and all the unavoidable challenges and difficulties that come along, it’s a miracle any movies get made at all. That a film like Night Moves got made and is still being talked about, is an even greater miracle. Gear’s book helps us understand and appreciate such miracles.