The movie’s reviews were mixed, and it failed to make a profit in the summer of 1975. . . . but Night Moves has gone on to be recognised as one of the defining films of the 1970s, both as a profound human drama and as an enduring evocation of the zeitgeist. This Technicolor neo-noir, along with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), reinvented and redeemed the private detective movie.
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The sixties were ending and Alan Sharp, a young Scottish novelist in America, found his muse on the frontier. By then everything seemed to be falling apart. Hopes and certainties had evaporated. Consensus was fractured. It was the bloody season of political assassinations. Thomas McGuane, another wild and libidinous young writer, would begin a Key West novel with an appropriately sweeping summation of despair: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our Republic.” Alan Sharp, no stranger to despair, also found his way to the sparkling waters, the fetid swamps, the heavy air of the Florida Keys.
It was a pilgrimage for a writer who loved John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) and, adopted at birth, had once imagined Humphrey Bogart as his long-lost father. Sharp recognised the mythical value of the Keys in the collective imagination. It was a last stop before Mexico, that fantasy destination for escaping renegades and the more irredeemable dropouts of the counterculture. But in Sharp’s outsider grasp of American myth, such characters never really escaped. Like the coast of California or the Rio Grande, the Keys were the edge of America – a place of spectacular culmination or of resignation and decay.
During this visit in the spring of 1968, one stop on an epic cross-country road trip with his young family in a secondhand Chevy II Nova, Sharp encountered a sardonic drifter. “I met this girl working in a bar in the Keys and she fascinated me,” he remembered. “She lived on the shore. She had a free spirit.” Her name was Paula and she was romantically involved with an unlikely married man. She was no beauty. Sharp’s then-wife Liz remembers:
She was a hard-nosed little woman who was very much alone and was having an affair with a man who was married to a bossy sort of lady. They had boats and did excursions into the water where you could look through a glass bottom. This affair wasn’t with the wife’s approval, but it was bizarre. We’d go evenings for dinners and this couple, the man and Paula, would dance about the room. Clearly she was intimate with the man but the wife seemed unaware of it. But not concerned. It was a very odd business.
Alan Sharp later elaborated:
[Paula] was from Malone up in New York State. I said, “What’s your deal here?” I basically asked her why she’s with this guy, who was a kind of conch, fishery guy. And not a studly dude. She said, “Well, he’s the only guy I’ve met down here who doesn’t disimprove when he drinks. And everybody drinks.” At that moment Paula became my heroine.
Paula, Sharp recognised, was an American archetype: the kind of “slightly shop-soiled, self-respecting” woman who never expects things to turn out well. He wanted to write that type of character. He kept her in mind as he continued his journey across Texas, then exploring the ghost towns of New Mexico, all the way to Los Angeles in the weeks after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Two years later Sharp was back on the road, this time in Mexico. Passing through the city of Tepic, he had the uncanny experience of stepping out of reality and into a familiar movie landscape. Early one morning he’d sat in the bar of the train station and found himself in “the setting for a Bogart movie, the seedy expatriate, enduring his existence, drinking cognac with his morning coffee,” he explained to readers of the Los Angeles Times. Sharp was hardly as broke as Fred C. Dobbs in Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but he let his imagination play and threw in a dash of the novel To Have and Have Not (1937): “You know how it is in Tepic in the mornings,” adopting the voice of the classic Hemingway insider taking us into his confidence. Outside “in the square in front of the church there were people awake and busy, coming from market, having their shoes polished, reading the paper.” A fat man in the bar put raw eggs in his orange juice. “He was doubtless a character in the movie,” Sharp decided. “When the 7:15 train came in the young Rita Hayworth would get off, come to find her embezzler husband or coward brother. Between her and Bogart would pass a glance, half knowing, part guessing: a recognition from which the plot would unwind.”
By 1971, Sharp had relocated his young family from London to America. It made sense professionally to be based in Hollywood, and it also gave Sharp, who once described himself as “pathologically promiscuous,” an opportunity to escape “that whole Femalestrom [sic.] I was in.” Two films he’d written – The Last Run and The Hired Hand – arrived in cinemas that summer. Remembering Paula of the Florida Keys, he began sketching two new spec screenplays. The first was called Tepic in the Morning. Sharp registered a 144-page draft with the Library of Congress for copyright purposes in early February 1972, and made plans to direct the film himself in Mexico that summer. The story was a Bogart/Huston pastiche enriched by Sharp’s Mexican road trip. But the script would depart from convention. In 1971, he described a scenario
in which we set up the thriller framework, then don’t use it. [We have] the standard thriller scene – the expatriate in the small Mexican town, the arrival of the girl, the corrupt police official, the stolen money . . . then we leave the framework [. . .] [It’s] like being in a huge expensive house with all these rooms and bathrooms and beds and you put a sleeping bag down on the floor. I hope it’s a kind of alienation effect.
But the planned 1972 production did not go ahead, and Tepic was put on hold. It was finally realised as Little Treasure (1985), a film starring Margot Kidder, Ted Danson, and Burt Lancaster. It was the only film Sharp would direct himself.
The screenplay centres on a character directly inspired by Paula of the Florida Keys. Margo is a former stripper who comes down to an unnamed town in Mexico – Sharp ultimately filmed in Tepoztlán and other locations in the states of Morelos and Durango – at the invitation of her long-absent father, a former bank robber. While there she meets an American expatriate, Eugene, who is drifting through the remote towns of Mexico projecting movies. After her father dies, Margo drags Eugene back to America on a quixotic search for her dad’s long-buried and possibly mythical loot in the ghost towns of New Mexico. The eventual film does for a time leave its generic framework – in a frankly vague and meandering way. As a stripper, Margot refuses to “drop her string” and appear bottomless. When she transgresses this personal rule at the insistence of a wealthy client at a private party, she has an emotional breakdown. The relationship goes to hell: the obsessive Margo shoots Eugene (non-fatally) when he decides to call off the search for the loot.
But the collapse of the 1972 production did not stop Sharp’s career momentum. He was established in Hollywood and had come a long way from the provincial Scottish town of Greenock. Now living with his family in a house with a pool in the vicinity of the legendary Chateau Marmont, Sharp developed a fondness for water volleyball. The dismally-received film Myra Breckinridge (1970) had been shot at the Marmont, and Dan Sharp remembers that his father tried in vain to persuade 20th Century-Fox to give him the film’s large statue of Gore Vidal’s transgender heroine “so he could put it in our yard next to where it had stood in the movie.”
“It was full-on hippie time in LA,” remembers Liz Sharp. Although their home was not drug-oriented, it “was always full of people who would come and forget to leave. We had two film students from London. One of them stayed for three months, one stayed a year. Despite a lot of it being harrowing, Alan had enormous energy. We had a lot of good fun.”
With Tepic in the Morning on hold, Sharp began writing a new spec screenplay, a private detective story, reusing some of the same basic elements – the Paula archetype, Mexican treasure, a thriller framework to be abandoned mid-drama – as well as other gleanings from his visits to Key West and Los Angeles in 1968.
Sharp figured it would begin as a private detective pastiche, following the conventional pathways of the genre, but then the detective’s investigation would dissipate. Along the way he might fall into a love affair in the Keys with a tough woman like Paula. Together they would run off with the loot. The romance would “end in disaster” and the mystery would remain unsolved. The film would reflect what Sharp defined as a new American consciousness at the close of the sixties, “a recognition that the world is more complex than what it was believed to be and that there are things that just cannot be solved.”
The working title was for a time An End of Wishing, and throughout its production it was The Dark Tower, a reference to Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855). Roland is an apprentice knight, and the dark tower is generally considered to be the object of his quest, although what it contains remains a mystery. The title would not be changed to Night Moves until postproduction.
Based on the quality of Sharp’s work-in-progress, producer Robert M. Sherman arranged to help fund the writing process. Sherman had formerly been at the CMA talent agency and then became a production executive at 20th Century-Fox. Now he worked with directors Mark Rydell and Sydney Pollack as president of Sanford Productions, founded in 1971. Partnered with Warner Bros., Sanford had produced Rydell’s The Cowboys (1972) and Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Their latest production was Jerry Schatzberg’s road movie Scarecrow (1973), starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Sherman remembered Sharp asking at the outset, “Should I make this a typical detective story about a guy trying to solve a crime or should I make this what I really would like it to be, which is about a guy trying to solve himself?” Sherman urged Sharp to take the latter approach.
In early 1973, a draft of the screenplay reached Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had made him one of the leading renegade directors of what would be called the New Hollywood. But Penn hadn’t made a feature film in several years. Exhausted by the making of his radical anti-western Little Big Man (1970) and a shocked bystander at the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Penn was in a state of disillusion. He remembered:
I went through a really difficult period after Little Big Man. [. . .] Actually . . . I lost my identity. I just gave up on things. I lost myself. For three years I stopped doing what really made me happy and what I really wanted to do. [. . .] When I decided I wanted to direct again, I just chose the first script to hand. Impulsively and without really thinking about it I just told myself I was going to direct Alan Sharp’s screenplay.
The making of Night Moves is the story of the collaboration of two artists of starkly different sensibilities – Alan Sharp the hopeless fatalist, Arthur Penn the agitating progressive. Each was just beginning to descend from his peak of cultural relevance. Sharp and Penn came together in 1973 to make a dark film about an America bereft of answers. Everything seemed in place for a triumph. Finally, in careers plagued by compromise, there was both an adequate budget and artistic freedom. Gene Hackman’s performance would expertly particularise an archetype fracturing before our eyes – the knightly private detective unable to solve his case, the macho American male desperate for certainty but lost at sea. But neither Penn nor Sharp was satisfied with the resulting movie and they disagreed over its final form. After a long delay, Warner Bros. cut its losses and dumped Night Moves into cinemas with a half-hearted publicity campaign. The movie’s reviews were mixed, and it failed to make a profit in the summer of 1975. That season was dominated by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which provided Hollywood with a new and super-profitable model of film production.
And yet Night Moves has gone on to be recognised as one of the defining films of the 1970s, both as a profound human drama and as an enduring evocation of the zeitgeist. This Technicolor neo-noir, along with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), reinvented and redeemed the private detective movie. A reactionary, nostalgia-crazed culture industry had tried to neuter the genre, reduce it to a repertoire of clichéd gestures. This trio of pictures reasserted film noir as an ideal cinematic language to explore the darkness at the heart of America.
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Thanks to Liz Sharp, Dan Sharp, and Nat Segaloff.
An excerpt from Matthew Asprey Gear’s Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir (Jorvik Press, 2019).
Interview with Alan Sharp by Nat Segaloff, 17 October 2006.
Author’s telephone interview with Liz Sharp, 9 October 2017.
Email from Dan Sharp to author, 25 September 2017.
Books and Articles
John Barkham, “Self-Identification Pervades Sharp’s Work.” Fort Lauderdale News, 16 May 1968.
Maureen Bashaw, “‘Dark Tower’ Florida Film ‘Whodunit’ Was Written with a Brogue,” News-Press (Fort Meyers, Florida), 13 November 1973.
Bill Campbell, “A Green Tree in Hollywood.” The Scotsman, 28 July 1979.
Claire Clouzot “Interview with Arthur Penn” (1976 interview), translated by Paul Cronin and Remi Guillochon, in Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (eds.), Arthur Penn: Interviews. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008).
Bruce Horsfield, “Night Moves Revisited: Scriptwriter Alan Sharp Interviewed, December 1979.” Literature/Film Quarterly vol. 11 no. 2, 1983.
Brendan King, Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade (New York: Bantam, 1974 ).
Janet L. Meyer, Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008 ).
Nat Segaloff, Arthur Penn: American Director (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011).
Alan Sharp, “In the Shade of New Mexico.” West magazine (Los Angeles Times), 26 May 1968.
Alan Sharp, “Mexico: Reflections in a Rear-View Mirror.” West magazine (Los Angeles Times), 20 December 1970.
- Gordon Smith, “Two Thirds of Alan Sharp.” Scottish International, January 1972.
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All images are screenshots from the films’ DVD.