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Saturday, March 25, 2006


First, a note to myself. However convenient it may seem, never, ever eat at the Pig'n Whistle before a movie at the Egyptian Theatre. Even though it's right next door, the restored 1927 Hollywood haunt is sadly little more than an overpriced sports bar with spotty service and mediocre food. The only thing it has going for it is its proximity to the theater.

But with the good company of Cindy and friend Julia, last Thursday evening's plan of dinner and a movie at the famous theater was more than salvaged.

Before falling asleep that night, I made a decision. From now on when attempting a simile to convey how well two things go together, for example, "like peanut butter and jelly" or "like a horse and a carriage" or "like two peas in a pod," I will now use my own original comparison, one borne of last night's viewing of Night Moves (1975, directed by Arthur Penn, screenplay by Alan Sharp). From this point on, things that complement each other exceptionally well will be said to go together like Gene Hackman and a good screenplay. As with life's best combinations, wine and cheese, love and sex, the qualities of each individual element elicit and enhance those of the other.

As former pro football star turned private investigator Harry Moseby, Hackman is a kettle of ever-simmering water that periodically has the flame below turned all the way up forcing brief, instant boilings. As abruptly as it is raised, the flame is lowered again, returning him to his natural state of steamy readiness. Hired by Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a post-hysterectomy, alcoholic never-really-was actress to track down her troubled and troublesome black-widow-in-the-making 16-year-old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), Moseby is soon embroiled in a smuggling scheme involving B movie makers, a libidinous stunt pilot, an angry young mechanic and a mysterious and damaged beauty (Jennifer Warren) living in the Florida Keys with the runaway's stepfather.

Harry's damaged too. Some of it is his fault; some of it is just the cards that life dealt him. The milestones of his life are punctuated by a recurring scenario, one in which he makes good use of his exceptional intelligence, perception and skill to approach the accomplishment of something remarkable only to ultimately freeze up. Harry chokes when he most needs to perform. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he wistfully admits to his wife that years ago he had tracked down his father, right down to the park bench he was sitting on. Harry watched him for a few hours but never spoke to him. Instead, he just walked away.

"Trouble is, after the first few feet, it's hard to tell whether or not you're jumping or you're falling."

Reminiscing about his Pro Bowl appearance from twelve years back, he describes his own stellar play, but also must admit that they lost the game in the end.

"Yeah, it stuck pretty good."

Harry's marriage is on the rocks, as well. Disillusioned by Harry's lack of success and general droopiness, his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) has an affair. They argue. She yells over the grind of glass in the garbage disposer,

"Turn that thing off! I can't hear myself think."

"Lucky you," Harry says.

Hackman delivers Sharp's lines with his unique mash of anger, regret, resignation and acceptance. It pains him to know that he's a failure but he recognizes that the pain won't change a damned thing. It's real. With Hackman you get the whole package. The tonal quality of his voice rings pitch perfect as the dialogue comes out through tightly gritted teeth or a mocking, shit-eating grin. The body language of his deceptively powerful frame matches his line delivery word for word. And the eyes serve as an ever present reminder of the lost, angry little boy discarded by his parents and left to not only fend for himself but to search for some semblance of happiness in this cruel, hard world.

Harry carries a chess board with him wherever he goes and sets up a move from a famous 1920s match. One player had victory within his grasp but overlooked one vital move, costing him the game. Harry observes, "He must have regretted it every day of his life. I know I would have. As a matter of fact I do regret it, and I wasn't even born yet." It's as if he's so conditioned himself to absorb blame and grief that he's able to take on the pain of others, of people he's never met.

The movie is loaded with great one liners. Ellen asks who's winning as Harry watches a football game.

"Nobody. One side's just losing slower than the other."

When Mrs. Iverson suggests that Harry join her in the bath, Harry cooly replies, "Maybe some other time when I'm feeling really dirty."

He comforts Delly with "I know it doesn't make much sense when you're sixteen. Don't worry. When you get to be forty, it doesn't get any better."

Harry equates foiling the Florida smuggling operation with finally achieving something in his life, the completion of a task. For once in his life Harry is going to see something through to the end even if it kills him. The film's final shot spells it all out for Harry as he drifts aimlessly with no one at the controls.

I don't know how else to say it except Gene Hackman rules. And when he's given a script as tightly wound as Alan Sharp's here, or Garry Michael White's Scarecrow or Bill L. Norton's Cisco Pike or David Webb Peoples' Unforgiven, we need to consider ourselves lucky to enjoy such a perfect combination.



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