Recent viewings: Night Moves
Night Moves (1975), a neo-noir private eye thriller that’s become a cult movie. It’s understated and oozes with the betrayals of Watergate, starting with a former D-lister starlet hiring a retired football player to find her runaway teenage daughter and ending with the image of a motorboat going around in circles and a hero who may have passed out or been mortally wounded. However, it’s on a small scale; there isn’t the baroque corruption hidden by the vast ambition at work in Chinatown (1974) or the classic misperception and sardonic turnaround ending of The Conversation (1974) that also stars Hackman in a completely different performance as a small, damaged man in a big, regular guy body.
Hackman gives a fully fleshed out performance in Night Moves as someone who’s been around the block a few times and takes himself seriously, although no one else shows him the same respect. He’s in over his head, but doesn’t understand it until it’s too late. He thinks of himself as ‘a white knight’ out to save others and the title actually refers to the moves a knight makes in chess, as well as what goes on after dark. There’s a squirming moment, which put me in mind of Ruffalo, when he wonders whether he should take advantage of Jennifer Warren’s damaged character. As H.L. Mencken said, “Never sleep with a woman whose problems are worse than your own,” and Hackman’s character looks like he remembers that phrase while making that decision.
To digress yet again, what didn’t happen for Jennifer Warren? In her screen roles, she was intelligent without having to be eccentric or daffy, attractive without having to be pretty, and sensual without having to be sexy; she was a real American woman, but that seems to be too much for either directors, producers, or executives so she didn’t get a chance at leads; instead, she turned to producing. Joanna Cassidy found herself in a similar boat about a decade later, but turned to TV for some sharp, wild, but smaller parts. She was, however, a great professional ‘80s heroine in Under Fire (1983), co-starring with Hackman. The list could go on, though a number of top actresses – Laurie Metcalf, Allison Janney, and now Viola Davis – have gone from the theatre straight to television with movies on the side instead of as the main dish. The result is that television has ascended and film has descended. They’re all just movies and many of them are no more than jumped-up, third-rate, whorish comic books.
Another era change has to be Melanie Griffith’s role as the young jailbait runaway. She plays a couple of suggestive nude scenes that probably would be cut today. On the other hand, her death would be much bloodier nowadays and lingered over. Hackman’s character behaves responsibly because he possessed an avuncular quality, especially in parts where he was co-starring in or supporting a female star vehicle (Lucky Lady, All Night Long, Postcards from the Edge).
He’s best known for The French Connection I and II (1971, 1975), but he could be hilarious, especially his blind hermit in Young Frankenstein (1974), a western hero in Bite the Bullet (1975) or western villain in Unforgiven (1992), and he could do war movies, thrillers, suspense, and even cartoons, though he defined Lex Luthor in the first Superman series. I wish he’d had the chance to play Robin Williams’ role in The Birdcage (1996), rather than the more one-note senator stooge. He could have passed easily as straight and then still provided a sense of kink.
Part of Hackman’s maturity as a performer and understated, but extraordinary range, was nourished by years of being turned down for parts. He seemed on the verge when he was cast as Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), but as Mark Harris recounted in Pictures at a Revolution (2008), he knew he’d be fired. There was an unstated physical reason, I believe. Watching a bear maul a chipmunk is not funny, but watching a squirrel wrestling with a chipmunk is very funny, which is why Murray Hamilton made sense visually with Dustin Hoffman. It wouldn’t have been believable to consider Hackman existing with Mrs. Robinson in such a sorry marital state.
Hackman’s last great role was as the eponymous patriarch of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is probably as close as we’re ever going to get to the essence of J.D. Salinger making it to the screen. His vigorous, wild, brilliant character provides the soul to the movie and deserved far greater attention than it received. I know some reviewers look at Owen Wilson as Hackman’s heir apparent, perhaps because of their noses that both display a somewhat phallic quality, but Wilson, while a gifted writer and a happily relaxing presence, doesn’t display the performing tension of a strong actor. Maybe Hackman could be persuaded to come out of retirement for a one-off movie with Ruffalo. That would be worth seeing.
|Jennifer Warren and Gene Hackman|
|Melanie Griffith in Night Moves|
|The French Connection|
|The Royal Tenenbaums|