Moving Pictures
Mar 15, 2023, 06:26AM

Symbols of Decay

Arthur Penn’s 1975 masterpiece Night Moves.

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Arthur Penn’s 1975 masterpiece Night Moves begins with music that sounds like a 1970s porno soundtrack, and immediately we understand the world we’re looking at. We see Harry Moseby, a private detective, played by a middle-aged Gene Hackman, pull up to his office in Los Angeles. Everything around him is already emptied out, old, wearied, wearing thin. The office looks neglected, with a rusty old lamp on an old-fashioned desk. And Harry’s an old-style figure.

He listens to messages from a machine—private detectives no longer have secretaries in 1975. He has only one message: it’s a case thrown to him by a more successful investigator. And the man explicitly contrasts their styles: he uses a computer, he’s modern (we picture a busy office with support staff). On the other hand we have Harry, alone in his dusty office, no clients waiting, nothing to do but take the case of Arlene Iverson—a woman who “used to be in the movies,” and is now looking for her missing daughter.

When he gets to the Iverson residence the same theme is driven home: the former actress is in an alcohol-sodden late-middle age; she talks about how beautiful she used to be, how she once had “great tits,” and tries half-heartedly or half-seriously to seduce Moseby with her bloated body. The symbolism here is so direct it practically interprets itself: formerly glamorous, she’s looking for the next generation, which is lost, while clinging desperately to what remains of her former glory.

We catch on: the film’s largely about the breakdown of a society no longer young, but unable to age gracefully. It was released in 1975, just before the Bicentennial. No great leap is necessary to see the link, and the film makes no attempt to obscure it. The symbolism is all direct, front and center. What had America become by 1975? From a small republic to a fledgling empire… to a decaying imperial husk in 200 years.

Moseby’s a remnant. An old-fashioned PI who does “leg work” contrasted with the company he refuses to work for, one that uses and talks about using a computer. Technology’s nothing if you can’t revel in it. And what is that but an attempt to convince the self that progress has been made, against the nagging instinct that something was lost which was perhaps of greater value. Harry is a remnant, but he’s a remnant of something more substantial. However decayed and reduced, he carries a residue of dignity, which no insults or jokes at his expense can entirely destroy.

And plenty of jokes are made at his expense. “Come on, take a swing at me, Harry. That’s what Sam Spade would do.” Thus his wife’s lover chides Moseby, when the latter confronts them in an unforgettable break-in scene. It’s a sorry attempt to shift the focus onto what’s ridiculous about Harry, or what the current assumptions consider ridiculous about him—and thereby move the focus off of the adulterers.

And how were the adulterers found out? A fluke. The truth is seen accidentally: the wife comes out of a theater after a movie Harry couldn’t attend. But he comes afterward to surprise his wife. And that’s when he sees. And then, as a private detective, he follows them in his car and watches as they kiss passionately at a traffic light. Later, surprising them at the lover’s home, he’s mocked for what he is, while the lover escapes blame for what he does.

It’s not just that Harry is old-fashioned or a private detective (a business the other characters seem amused to learn still exists). He’s seen as a foil for the lover: like his wife, the latter enjoys Rohmer films, he collects art and listens to classical music. Harry, on the other hand, is a former football player for the Oakland Raiders who makes a living taking physical risks. Yet the lover is also slightly crippled. And on closer consideration we realize that Moseby isn’t really the perfect foil for the intellectual in any case: he is, for example, a chess fanatic who apparently can recreate famous games from memory—which he does, later in the film, on his traveling chess kit. The separation of intellect from physicality leaves a man crippled, we might conclude; while the two together form an ideal, even if that ideal has seen better days.

The L.A. setting works on a symbolic level too: California then was seen as everything new and hopeful. The city wasn’t gloomy and gray like New York (think of how Woody Allen treated this contrast two years later in Annie Hall), it was warm and the people were health-conscious, young, transplants living there by choice. This was the image. But images can be deceiving—like the half-crippled art lover seen against the former pro football player. Contrasts break down, much as the image of L.A. reveals itself to be false (already a declining, vapid, increasingly violent and dysfunctional mess of a city as well—but with pretty women and palm trees).

Later, when Harry tracks down the missing Iverson girl, someone asks him: “You’re not one of those intent on the truth types, are you?”

“Well… I’m not religious about it, no… But I’m—”

He’s cut off before he can qualify his answer. She doesn’t really want to know. And neither do we. By then we’d put our heads into the sand. We didn’t want to know what we were becoming. We didn’t want to see the breakdown of norms, the decay of formerly thriving industrial towns, the ruin of cities for the sake of an increasingly sprawling strip mall landscape built of cheap plastic and intended for obsolescence. We didn’t want to see the anti-culture already growing within academic institutions, sold on television, and eventually mainstreamed by trusted institutions and leaders.

Moseby isn’t religious about the truth, but he’s interested in it. He hasn’t accepted the deepening relativism he finds everywhere around him. Again, he’s a remnant, but even the partial ruins of something great and longstanding are more substantial than the flimsy post-war constructions. Underneath the film’s cynicism is mourning. Night Moves is a half-submerged elegy.

Later, in Florida, Harry finds the runaway girl (played by Melanie Griffith in her debut role) and sees immediately that she’s “liberated,” of her time, and oblivious to any possible criticism of it. She’s embraced it, unlike those around her who embrace it half-enthusiastically and half-disdainfully. Even the basically liberated woman he meets living there with her and her stepfather seems in relation to the runaway as Moseby seems in relation to her. This distancing between generations—not new but picking up significance and intensity with the Boomers. The dialogue between the child and Harry sums up the situation perfectly:

Runaway: (having remarked on his advanced age, though he’s probably not much over 40) “I guess you like things to stay the way they are.”

Moseby: “That depends on how they are.”

Runaway: “I like things to change no matter what.”

The plot of Night Moves is convoluted and not all that important. The film thrives in its symbolic density. It illustrates without having to explain. And like that other great private detective movie, The Big Sleep, it works on a complicated level whether or not you can follow the labyrinthine storylines. However, the outlines of the story are significant: Harry tracks down the girl and returns her to her mother. He brings her from a bad situation (there’s some hint of sexual misdeeds between the teenager and her stepfather) into an even worse one—and she escapes almost immediately. But having learned something she should not know about her friends and lovers, she’s soon killed to cover it up. Or so Harry assumes.

Similarly, Harry learns something at the very end about the man he had trusted most throughout the course of the film. It’s devastating. Just as what we have learned about our country and those we have trusted has been devasting. The 1970s is portrayed as a time characterized by cynicism. But a more accurate understanding would be that the period after 1968 stands as the beginning of a set of realizations about our country and our culture.

And not all cynicism is cheap.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” asks the liberated cynic, the no-longer young housemate of the old stepfather.

“Which Kennedy?” asks Harry. And then later, “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just one of those questions everybody knows the answer to.”

And this seems like the ultimate in cynical replies. But then she breaks, and the pose comes apart: the wreck of character lies behind the cynical façade. She cries and needs comforting. The actual wreck they’d just found in the ocean reminds her of “when Bobby was shot—the newsreel made it look like everything was underwater.”

And everything is underwater for us. Since at least ’68 we’ve been living in a broken, scattered and declining state. We no longer remember that a nation’s a kind of extended family, and like a family it requires order. Given up on truths we once took for granted, we’ve slowly come to the realization that we have nothing workable to replace them with. And there’s no way to go “back.” It’s easy to blame our techno-therapeutic anti-culture for the catastrophe unfolding all around us, as if we simply made a bad choice somewhere along the line and could easily rectify this with a countervailing choice of another kind. We’re paying for the fact that many of our foundational assumptions were wrong to begin with—wrong enough that they led us here.

There are other angles to pursue. For example: is the film modeled on John Ford’s legendary The Searchers? They both center on the search for a missing girl—but here the result isn’t happy, the “family” she’s returned to doesn’t deserve to have her back, and so on. Comparison of the films, too, would form a set of reference points by which we could chart the distance from pre-war America to the America of the Boomers, and on to late-20th century spiraling decline. That is beyond the scope of this essay. However, merely to indicate it is to point to the lesson of our time’s inevitable catastrophe. It is to recognize that we must go through our period of nihilism. Instead of trying to swim against the tide as conservatives have counselled, it’s time we do what Moseby couldn’t, and accept our situation for what it is. The unreal catastrophe all around us is real. There may be no way back to the old order. But on the other hand our disgust might be a bridge by which we can start to climb our way out of the slow-motion suicide of something barely still an empire, no longer a nation, and more to the point, no longer a culture.

—Follow Panurge on Twitter: @Panurgien


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