A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Moseby Confidential: Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir (Jorvik Press, 2019) is an interesting monograph of a hybrid nature. Written by Matthew Asprey Gear, author of the distinctive study At The End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City (Wallflower Press, 2016) and other stimulating publications, the publisher’s location is in Oregon but the name of the press derived from the Viking name for York, England, while its author now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. Naturally, this fusion fits the author’s independent status away from the treadmill of institutional academia allowing him to follow his own lines of research. This type of monograph would once have been within the scope of such works published by BFI Publishing, I.B. Tauris, Hong Kong University Press, and other companies that once prolifically engaged in this area. Today, it is gratifying to see an independent press continuing the tradition, which allows a renowned film critic to write about a film he champions.
Comprising 165 pages, the monograph comprises prologue and coda with six chapters, followed by film credit appendix and notes and references. It covers the background to the making of the film, its cultural situation, production, and post-production circumstances and the fraught collaboration between director Arthur Penn and scenarist Alan Sharp, who diversely belonged to a different type of Hollywood whose potential was extinguished by the Jaws Spielberg era in an America that would refuse to confront its problems cinematically and seek solace in what may be aptly called “mindless entertainment.”
Night Moves was a film less involved in the “rise of Neo-Noir” than one belonging to the short-lived radical potential of the revised genre as witnessed in films such as Chinatown (1974), Hustle (1972), and The Long Goodbye (1973) that would soon expire in later pastiche appropriations with the notable appearance of the Jack Nicholson-directed The Two Jakes (1990), one of the honorable exceptions to this later trend which deliberately went “against the grain.” It is a shame that Gear does not make this distinction more exact. but he may not have had control over the monograph’s sub-title. As much a complex term as “film noir,” “neo-noir” includes both radical developments to the form, like Night Movies, as well as inept pastiches, such as Michael Winner’s version of The Big Sleep (1978), the unnecessary remakes of films such as D.O.A. (1948) in 1988 and Out of the Past (1947) as Against All Odds (1984). Though Gear includes interview material in his notes section, either second-hand, direct phone, Skype correspondence with surviving participants and relevant internet citations concerning production and reception details, it is also problematic that he does not include distinctive articles that appeared in the film’s aftermath, such as those by Michael Walker and Peter C. Knowles (1). Gear, however, is keen on other matters, such as performance:
Clark ultimately delivered a sympathetic performance in a challenging role – an unfaithful wife who, when exposed as an adulteress, refuses to allow her husband to wallow in cuckolded self-pity. (89)
However, despite Warren’s reservations over John Crawford’s casting, he did have a respectable track record as an actor. In addition to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and serving as co-scenarist of The Ballad of Cable Hough (1970) mentioned by Gear (97), he had appeared as Joab in Solomon and Sheba (1959), and played leading roles in several British films, such as Val Guest’s Hell is a City (1960) and Piccadilly Third Stop (1960), while he delivered four different roles in The Time Tunnel (1966- 1967), including King John (!), in his over forty- year career.
Both the demise of the New Camelot, epitomized by the tragic ends of three Kennedy brothers and Watergate, cast a huge shadow over this production, the significance of which was recognized by director and scenarist, the latter being a much better screenwriter than he was an author. Both Sharp and Hackman suffered from having missing fathers in their lives, which resulted in feelings of deep insecurity that they compensated for in different ways. Thus, it is natural that certain cross-currents, personal and historical, went into this film at a particular historical juncture, as Gear notes when assessing the significance of Sharp’s original screenplay:
The Dark Tower is preoccupied with drowning – five characters drown or die in water in the shooting script. While Chappaquddick is never mentioned, the particulars of Kopechne’s horrible, claustrophobic drowning inside Kennedy’s sinking car seem to haunt the film like the latent content of a dream…The circumstances of Kopechne’s death are echoed in The Dark Tower on several occasions. Delly dies as the passenger in a stunt car which the stunt driver, Ziegler, survives…Even more powerfully, Ziegler’s eventual drowning inside the cockpit of his crashed seaplane – although inspired by an altogether real-life incident – appears even closer to Kopechne’s death, albeit with an ironic reversal of fortune. (62)
This is an interesting, basic study of a fascinating film. Like the film’s contemporaries, it represents the heyday of a challenging era in Hollywood when anything appeared possible before the rise of the Lucas-Spielberg era that cast the industry back into decades of mindless infantilism. Though we may witness what seems to be its lower depths today, the realization that the worst is yet to come is overpowering. Hence, Gear’s monograph is well worth reading even for those who have yet to discover Night Moves and are willing to submit to the type of cinematic challenge common several decades ago but sadly lacking today, for the most part.
Read an excerpt of Moseby Confidential here.
1. Michael Walker, “Night Moves”, Movie 22 (1976): 34-38; Peter C. Knowles, “Genre and Authorship: Two Films of Arthur Penn.” cineACTION! 21/22 (1990): 76-83. Other important references conspicuously absent that cover Night Moves within the context of Penn’s other films include Terence Butler,” Arthur Penn: The Flight from Identity.” Movie 26 (1978/79): 43-74, and Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness. Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 53-58, the last not only covering the forties detective tradition the film dismantles but also historical changes in American society that brought Penn’s career to a virtual end.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University who also mourns for that era of challenging films and lack of pressure to “choose the popular.” Fortunately, he is still a contributing editor to Film International.