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In the week when Gene Hackman was mistakenly presumed deceased, but confirmed as merely retired, it’s well worth revisiting one of his most Trunkworthy outings: Arthur Penn’s initially underappreciated neo-noir Night Moves (1975). As third-rate detective Harry Moseby, Hackman is required to drown slowly in a sea of hopelessness and does so magnificently, stumbling one mis-step at a time into an impenetrable labyrinth, armed with little more than bottled-up anxiety, average wits, and perfectly misguided 1970s hair. Few actors could better embody the emotional paralysis and creeping irrelevance of Moseby—a former pro-footballer turned freelance investigator—than Hackman. He looks more like a plumber than a movie star, but has screen presence in buckets, and for the purposes of Night Moves, this tension is golden.
With little in the way of visual flair to distract us (unlike the stylish and shadowy original noirs, much of the film looks like an episode of The Rockford Files, shot by DP Bruce Surtees in bright sunlight) we’re left with Moseby as the only point of focus—and in his messed-up, myopic, impotent way, Hackman is spectacular. Trapped in a roiling funk, bristling with frustration, cuckolded by his wife, and paralyzed by a hard-wired refusal to confront his own problems, Hackman’s detective takes refuge in the nasty affairs of others, but never looks like he’s unravelling this or any other mystery. Trying to follow the plot is a pointless distraction: the real interest lies in the Moseby’s failings, and the compelling ways in which Hackman, at the top of his game, explores them.