The Archaeology of Night Moves


This weekend I watched Arthur Penn’s neo-noir Night Moves (1975) which starred Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, and Susan Clark and a very young Melanie Griffith and James Woods. This post involves some spoilers, so if this movie is on your short list, maybe come back to this post after you’ve seen it.

The basic plot of the movie involves a Harry Mosley (Gene Hackman) former football player turned private eye who is retained to track down, Delly Grastner (a scandalously young Melanie Griffith), the wild 16-year old daughter an aging former b-list Hollywood starlet who had run away while seducing a series of older men.

The Delly Grastner case is a McGuffin, and in a clever inversion of the Maltese Falcon, the plot revolves around the smuggling of antiquities. Moreover, for anyone inclined to view this film with an archaeologists eye, the movie is really about time. 

Hank Mosley struggles with his own place in time. A former professional athlete, he has settled into a comfortable life as a private investigator, but his wife, who he discovers is having an affair, and buddy think he’s wasting his life, taking on dead end cases and refusing to use the latest technology to facilitate his investigations. Delly is coming of age physically and uses her sexuality to gain the attention of older men, playing out her own version of her mother’s hyper-sexualized life. In short, like Mosley, Delly is also outside of time living an adult life as a teenager.  

The two narratives of time and age culminate in the Florida Keys where Harry found Delly after tracking her from boyfriend to boyfriend from New Mexico to Florida where she had gone to be with Tom Iverson who was her step-father and his girlfriend, Paula. It turns out that Tom was in business with one of Delly’s earlier paramours. They were smuggling “Mayan” antiquities from the Yucatan to the Keys. On a night swim, Delly discovered the crashed plane with its decomposing pilot. The pilot was one of her former boyfriends but it’s unclear whether she recognized him. The encounter, however, shook Delly enough that she agreed to return to her mother with Harry. Back in Hollywood, she got her extra-card and started working in the movies, when she dies in a car accident on set. The car was driven by a Harry’s friend, Joey Ziegler. 

Harry, like many private investigators in noir and neo-noir, can’t shake the feeling that there was more than meets the eye. He returns to Florida and figures out that the crashed plane had been smuggling antiquities to Tom Iverson. Harry confronts Tom, a fight ensues, and he knocks Tom out. He and Paula then take Tom’s boat go to the submerged crash site. The final scene of the film involves Tom’s girlfriend, Paula, floating a piece of “Mayan” sculpture to the surface from the cash site. As she comes to the surface, Joey Ziegler appears in a seaplane and shoots Harry and then crashes the plane into an unsuspecting Paula. The plane comes apart on impact and sinks with Joey in it. Harry, wounded, is unable to steer the boat and can only set it to drive in circles.

As the smuggled Mayan antiquity emerges from depths, the themes of archaeology and time become obvious. The excavated antiquity floats on the surface as the plane sinks below it and the boat with its wounded investigator circles aimlessly.  

What I loved about the film is the two main character operate outside of time while the others fly above and slide below them. The smuggled artifact appears from the depths just as the plane carrying the gun toting smuggler slide beneath the surface. The ordering of time is pointless. Harry’s former gridiron glory, life as a private investigator, and heroic effort to try to redeem Delly’s life by solving the complicated crimes that surrounded her death led him nowhere but circling in the sea.  


One other note, Susan Clark plays Harry’s wife. When Harry’s shown a smuggled antiquity early in the film, he remarks that they don’t appeal to him because they remind him of Alex Karras. In the movie, this seems to be a reference to Harry’s days as a pro football player, although it’s unclear whether he played offense (in which case Karras would have been a terrifying opponent) or defense (in which case they would have rarely shared the field. Later in the film, Joey Ziegler reminisces about Harry’s interception in a game, suggesting that he played defense, but even that reference is a bit garbled.) In real life, Alex Karras had just met Susan Clark, and they would go on to marry, and it may be that Karras, who had embarked on his own career in film and television was spending time on the set. In the film, Clark’s character was having an affair, so the quip broke through the fourth wall in a way vaguely relevant to the film itself.  

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