Saturday, 1 August 2020
Book & Film:
by Alan Sharp
(Warner Paperback Library, 1975)
I’ve found myself dipping into a number of these books in recent years, and though their quality naturally varies, I’ve discovered several which I believe actually surpass the quality of their cinematic counterparts. If I put Alan Sharp’s ‘Night Moves’, based on his own screenplay, into this category, that’s no slur on Arthur Penn’s film, which is excellent. But, as an experienced novelist expanding upon a story of his own creation about which he obviously cared quite deeply, Sharp here gives us a deeper dive into the uniquely despairing atmosphere of the piece, and the ennui-ridden, low key tragedy of its characters.
Though it betrays signs of being written in haste (as well as the inevitable typos, there are a few snowdrifts of incoherence which subsequent drafts would surely have cleared up), this ostensible promo item for Penn’s film feels very much like the definitive version of the story, and the true source of the ‘feel’ the director was trying to put on-screen.
In trying to understand where ‘Night Moves’ is coming from, it’s instructive I think to take a quick glance at a capsule biography of Alan Sharp. Born in Scotland in 1934, Sharp struggled to establish himself as a literary novelist during the 1960s, before apparently packing it in and deciding to try his luck in Hollywood, where he offered his services to the studios, expressing a particular desire to work on undemanding genre fare such as westerns and detective pictures.
This being the post-‘Easy Rider’, pre-‘Star Wars’ 1970s however, the genre films being produced were often far from conventional, and the distinctive authorial stamp present in the small number of Sharp scripts which made it to the big screen (including Peter Fonda’s excellent ‘The Hired Hand’ (1970) and Robert Aldrich’s revisionist western ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ (1972)) has often been noted.
Essentially, ‘Night Moves’ is exactly the book I would have expected this man to write, complete with eerie parallels to another U.K. ex-pat whose unfulfilled literary ambitions fed into the career-defining work he produced within the L.A. / Hollywood pulp fiction milieu, Raymond Chandler.
Though Chandler’s work is never explicitly referenced in ‘Night Moves’, his influence hangs heavy over both the celluloid and paper incarnations of the project. The moral ambiguities contemplated by Private Investigator Harry Moseby as he is paid to track down the wild-child daughter of a dysfunctional, implicitly abusive, Hollywood family directly echo those faced by Philip Marlowe in Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. But, like Robert Towne’s similarly themed script for ‘Chinatown’ (released by Warner Bros a year earlier), Sharp’s story veers further into realms of uncertainty and darkness, evoking the foggy, depressive atmosphere of Chandler’s later masterpiece, ‘The Long Goodbye’.
The big difference here though of course is that, whereas Chandler’s Marlowe was essentially a cipher - more of a one-man Greek chorus or a vehicle for the authorial voice than a fleshed out, human character - the complicated ins and outs of Harry Moseby’s background and psychology instead become Sharp’s main focus.
Whereas Penn’s film is recognisably a detective story from the outset, briskly following the familiar A, to B, to C pattern of Moseby’s investigation as viewers mentally take notes and try to keep up, Sharp’s prose prefers to let these details of names, dates and places hang in the background - just the ambient noise of our character going about his day-job. His thoughts, which we share, remain elsewhere as he contemplates his own problems, and his uncertain place in the world.
It is only in its final twenty pages that the novel finally (reluctantly?) ratchets up the pace and becomes a thriller, with guns and dead bodies and murders to avenge. Up to that point, Sharp has taken things slowly; time has been given more of a chance to stretch out than would have been possible in a commercial movie, even in the free-and-easy 1970s.
Repeatedly during the story, Moseby tells people that he has no idea why being a detective appeals to him so much, or why he ended up pursuing such a shady profession. One key detail lost in the film is the fact that Harry’s detective agency barely breaks even. It is his wife Ellen’s interior décor business which pays the couple’s bills, thus making a mockery of his dishevelled, “just doin’ my job” attitude to his work.
Meanwhile, the leisurely detail Sharp gives us on Moseby’s day-to-day travails make the reasons behind his anachronistic choice of career abundantly clear. For all the squalid, ethically dubious activity his profession requires of him, he enjoys being a detective. It allows him to travel to random places, and to hang around in them for extended periods of time, essentially not doing much. He can get lost in his thoughts, replay chess games on his portable board and observe his surroundings – all whilst still feeling like his activities have ‘purpose’.
The job allows him to meet interesting people, and to enjoy the frisson of a bit of low level antagonism and physical threat which perhaps reminds him of his football days. And, most importantly, it allows him to leave his ‘real life’ responsibilities left far behind; the passages in the book which describe Harry flying to New Mexico and Florida, dropping out of the sky into a new, strange world, his marital strife temporarily forgotten, are beautifully observed.
In both book and film, we get a sense of there being a chasm separating Harry’s ‘detective’ life (in which he can fool himself into thinking he’s solving problems, overcoming entropy) from his ‘real life’, as an aimless dude with thinning hair who’s just hit forty and discovered that his wife is cheating on him, whilst his hopes for the future slowly slide beyond his reach. People – women in particular – keep reminding him of this division, and it bugs him, like a twinge of conscience.
Sharp’s essential point seems to be that, if you make your private eye a three dimensional figure, complete with the kind of problems and failures faced by each of us in our day-to-day lives, there is no way he can navigate his way toward ‘solving the case’ in the way Chandler’s archetype demands – particularly not when he find himself alone amid the nebulous, poisoned atmosphere of Watergate-era L.A., laying deceit, half-truths and half-baked armchair psychiatry on him wherever he turns.
And, let’s make no bones about this, I love the way that ‘Night Moves’ – in both of its incarnations – taps into that bottomless well of lost, disenfranchised downer vibes which seems the have to consumed American culture in the mid-1970s, and just lets the waters flow. I’ve not yet come up with a satisfactory name for the very particular aesthetic unique to this place and time, but suffice to say, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by it as I get older, and ‘Night Moves’ provides a key touchstone for this particular ‘feel’.
When Moseby, having just discovered he is being cuckolded, takes a diversion on the way home and sits, lost in his thoughts, watching the surfers on Malibu’s Zuma beach, I can’t help but imagine Neil Young in his beach house somewhere down the way, laying down the album of the same name with Crazy Horse. Or of Donald Cammell freaking out in his hideaway up in the nearby hills, or characters from Steely Dan songs, sliding seedily down the boulevards, looking for their next big score. Forty-five years down the line, the weird, ugly and desperate is transmuted into magic.
Whereas these ‘70s downer narratives usually tend to focus on the disillusionment of former hippie / counter-culture types though, Harry Moseby most definitely does not find into that mould. As a former football pro, his character, insofar as we can read it in societal terms, seems to represent the American male who has unthinkingly followed the path set down for him as a result of his physical aptitude…. only to find himself in a confusing and lonely mid-life dead end once his athleticism, inevitably, fails him. In some ways, he seems like softer, more vulnerable counterpart to the ravaged, emotionally neutered Vietnam vets who were just starting to stumble into the glare of popular culture at this point in time.
This aspect of Moseby’s character is lent greater clarity in the novel through his interactions with Charles, the gay aesthete character with whom his wife works in her furnishing business. In the film, Charles’ sexuality remains unclear, and the brief scene in which Harry needles him thus becomes rather confusing. In the book though, it’s clear that Harry is riffing on the vast chasm which separates his lifestyle from that of the other man (“when are we going bowling again, Charles?”), and that Charles, who sees these remarks as venomous in their intent, is genuinely offended by Harry’s insistence on putting him down for no good reason.
What really makes this scene interesting though, in a way that a film couldn’t easily communicate, is that Harry’s interior monologue reveals that he actually likes Charles, and doesn’t really resent his effete manners or homosexuality in the slightest. He just can’t resist belittling him, feeling the need to assert his macho ‘caveman’ credentials, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand.
Harry’s strange, rather masochistic, affectation of an anti-intellectual tough guy persona is further explored when he declines an invitation to go to the cinema with his wife that night. In the film, urban sophisticates Ellen and Charles are seeing Éric Rohmer’s ‘My Night at Maud’s’, of which Harry comments, “I saw a Rohmer film once, it was kinda like watching paint dry.” Fair comment perhaps for a rough n’ tumble American guy without much of a taste for arty French films.
In the novel though, Harry makes the same comment about a Claude Chabrol film, before admitting in his interior monologue that he’s never actually seen a Chabrol film is just bluffing it – clearly not realising that Chabrol was actually primarily known for making tightly plotted thrillers, pretty much like the one Moseby is in, in fact. Poor Harry, he can’t even get pretending to hate arty-farty French films right.
Much like Robert Altman’s inspired 1973 reimagining of ‘The Long Goodbye’, Sharp’s distaste for the empty and amoral, punctured ego sandbox sprawl of ‘70s bourgeois life – and the strange aptitude with which Chandler-esque noir can serve as a prism for dealing with it – is clear here. The tasteless marble ornaments which Ellen and Charles sell to their monetarily overburdened clients can be linked to the repulsive lifestyle of third rate Norma Desmond figure Arlene Iverson, to the dolphins which Paula and Tom Iverson keep in pens down in Florida (“people buy them for their pools, they think it’s chic to have a dolphin for a pet”), and – in the film – to the glass case full of antique Central American trinkets which Harry’s detective buddy Nick keeps in his office; strictly as investments, rather than cultural artefacts.
More despairingly satirical however is the key ‘specific-reflecting-the-whole’ line found in both versions of ‘Night Moves’. This occurs when Moseby, having discovered that his wife is cheating on him, responds to her disinterested query regarding the Monday night football game he is watching on TV; “nobody’s winning, one side’s just losing quicker than the other”.
Lent an added dimension of literality in the book by other moments in which Moseby expresses his disgust at what he sees as the sloppy conduct of current football players in comparison to those of his own (aging/retired) generation, the extent to which this throwaway line becomes a damning indictment, not just of a crumbling marriage, but of American culture as a whole during the 1970s, is little short of extraordinary. There is no success in the world Sharp is depicting here – just different kinds of failure, progressing at different speeds.
Far more-so than the rushed and mundane (if pleasantly surreal) thriller scenario which comprises ‘Night Moves’ final act, it is in this earlier character stuff - which expands later in the story to take in both Moseby’s instant kinship with stuntman Joey Ziegler and his oblique, somewhat borderless inter-action with the trio of characters in whose aimless, sun-baked world of unspoken tensions he becomes enmeshed once he hits Florida - that the strength of the book really lies.
One of the main thematic threads running through ‘Night Moves’ arises from Moseby’s passion for chess, and in particular his fixation with a 1922 game in which a player named Bruno Moritz “severely fucked up”. The novel opens with Harry obsessively moving through the moves of the fated game on his travelling chess board as her sits in his car, working a stake-out for a particularly undignified feuding neighbours case. Later, in Florida, he discusses this obsession with Paula, telling her, “[Moritz] must have regretted it every day of his life. Well I know I would…. fact is, I do, and I wasn’t even born.” (“That’s no excuse,” she responds, before abruptly leaving.)(1)
Perhaps it’s just because I don’t play myself, but it was only upon reading the novel that I realised the title of the movie is a (slightly awkward) chess pun, as Moseby dwells on the fact that Moritz allowed his opponent to achieve checkmate, using only “three little (k)night moves”. His failure to see his mistake until it was to late, which Harry feels so inexplicably troubled by, provides Sharp with his central metaphor - a perfect analogue to the private eye who is not only unable to see the solution to his case, but unable to even comprehend the path he’s left open for his own destruction, gliding ever closer, as he sits around fretting over other people’s problems.
Those three little knight moves, which Moseby can move through every day in the cold, logical space of his portable board, he is unable to replicate in the soft, sick, ever-shifting world of unpredictable human life which he inhabits.
Although I stated earlier in this piece that Chandler is “never explicitly referenced” in ‘Night Moves’, I later found myself slapping my forehead upon realising just how fiendishly inspired the manner in which Sharp evokes Chandler’s legacy here actually is.
I mean, didn’t Philip Marlowe also play chess during (extremely rare) quiet moments alone in his apartment? And, did Chandler ever explicitly connect this with his oft-quoted declaration that his most famous character should act as a “white knight”? I’m not sure, but either way, Sharp certainly did.
Moseby may achieve top marks as Chandler’s “man who is not mean,” but his failure to become the “white knight” who can pull those three little moves against Moritz’s black, without abandoning his soul in the process – that’s the tragedy at the heart of ‘Night Moves’, one which Chandler, and the majority of private eye writers who followed in his gumshoed footsteps, could never quite bring themselves to acknowledge. (2)
(1)To relive the 1922 Kurt Emmrich vs Bruno Moritz game which so obsessed Harry Moseby for yourself, try here.
(2)Readers wishing to sink further into this particular black hole may wish to note that one of Alan Sharp’s earliest screenwriting credits was a 1965 BBC TV play entitled ‘A Knight in Tarnished Armour’.