Ellen Moseby: [of a football game] Who’s winning?
Harry Moseby: Nobody. One side is just losing slower than the other.
Harry Moseby cracks wise all through Night Moves. That Gene Hackman grin is always at the ready, defusing tight situations. But Harry is an angry man. You see flashes of it, when he’s pushed too far—or when he feels cuckolded. He used to channel that anger into football. But that’s gone. Now he seems like a man who doesn’t know where to put it or what to do with it. His life isn’t working out and he knows it. People, including those he trusts most, let him down. Beneath his sardonic patter, he’s an optimist. He wants to believe in the better aspects of human nature. He might even be a romantic. Why else would he cling to the quixotic fantasy of being a private eye on his own? “Take a swing at me, Harry,” his wife’s lover tells him. “Like Sam Spade would.”
Film noir in the 40s and 50s was about probing the darkness, coming face to face with poisonous forces that largely remained out of everyday view. In the 1970s, thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, the corruption and decay was out there for all to see. Your government and your wife, both were lying to you. It’s no wonder then that two of the decades most famous noirs (three, if you count Chinatown), are drenched in sunshine. Night Moves takes Harry from LA to New Mexico to the Florida Keys. Much of The Long Goodbye talks place in Malibu, on the beach. Sam Spade wouldn’t be caught dead there.
As played by Elliott Gould, Philip Marlowe is, like Harry, a man out of sync with his time. Robert Altman’s film makes the point literally by having Marlowe drive a 1948 Continental. For much of the story, he seems bewildered, almost somnambulant. His shrugging nonchalance typified by his stock phrase, “It’s okay with me.” But as with Harry Moseby, the placidity masks existential distress, a heartbreak that the old code, the old values, no longer have a place in contemporary society.
Those outdated notions of honor and gallantry make both private detectives, for want of a better word, pure patsies in the noir tradition. Both Moseby and Marlowe stumble through their cases, always a step behind, never seeing the big picture. The conspiracies at the heart of both films are more monstrous than either could have expected. Harry misreads people: he assumes his wife is honest and the nymphet (Melanie Griffith, eternally in a state of undress) he’s hired to find is a cheat, but he has it reversed. He doesn’t question motives like he should, assumes enemies for friends and ends up, literally, drifting in circles. Marlowe’s duped from the start; the plot hinges on his innocence.
Altman is more interested in the trappings of the genre than its soul, which is why The Long Goodbye plays sometimes as a lark. (At one point, Gould sprints down an L.A. street, his ever-present cigarette still tucked in the corner of his mouth.) But I’d argue the shock ending is an act of rage and disappointment at the state at which Marlowe finds the modern world. He effectively ditches his Chandler code of honor and then, with a nod to another noir classic, The Third Man, walks out of his old life and out of the movie.
Harry never finds a moment like that as Night Moves draws to a close. At no point, does he gain mastery of the situation. His realization that his code is as useless to him as Marlowe’s is comes too late for him to do anything about it. Even more that Marlowe, Harry is a bystander in his own movie. (His investigation may have, at the end, done more harm than good.) We’re trained by detective fiction for the gumshoe to be the story’s engine, its prime mover. They call it a detective “agency” for a reason. Think of Spade at the close of The Maltese Falcon, sending Brigid O’Shaughnessy up the river. So it’s stunning indeed to see Harry Moseby alone, adrift, helpless and hurting, and still with more questions than answers. His romantic view of his life and career are as dead as his friend at the bottom of the ocean. Even if he survives, he’ll never be the same. Like Marlowe, his time has passed.