Penn, best known for directing Bonnie and Clyde, has remarked: 'There hasn't been much of a market for what I can do. I'm not into space epics or youth pictures' - which is slightly ironic, since I first saw Night Moves (at the Gravesend ABC) as a pimply youth of 16, lured in for the afternoon by its X-rating. What I was hoping for was naked women and / or spilt blood; what I got was a slightly baffling but liberating cinematic experience.
The only sex scene as such, where Gene Hackman creeps up behind his wife (she is on the phone to her lover) and starts fondling her breasts, was far removed from the furtive peep-show experience of soft porn. These were adults, treating sex playfully and matter-of- factly, a novel and rather warming idea.
Hackman plays a private eye hired by an alcoholic former movie actress to track down her runaway nymphet daughter (an 18- year-old Melanie Griffith) who, it turns out, has moved in with her stepfather in the Florida Keys.
Hackman's PI, of course, has marriage problems; but these aren't the usual character accessories, like a battered raincoat or a love of opera. They are part of the plot, integral to the film's strong flavour of post- Watergate disenchantment.
Michael Small's minimalist jazz score adds to this sense of bleached-out disillusion. There are no goodies and baddies here - only life's victims. This isn't film noir, it's more like film gris.
The Hollywood industry bible, Variety, declared, 'Night Moves is a paradox: a suspenseless suspenser.' What they perhaps meant was that here is a truly adult thriller, where no one is innocent, no one gets saved and nothing is solved.
Hackman's PI may think he's doing right, but he's only doing what he's paid for - regardless of whether Griffith's runaway would really be better off with her dipso mother, who hates her for being young and pretty.
What Variety also probably mean by 'a suspenseless suspenser' is that this is a very low-key movie. The cast, helped along by Alan Sharp's beautifully sparse script, offer up the supreme sacrifice for Hollywood actors of submerging themselves in their parts.
And unlike other Seventies thrillers in the 'Watching the Detectives' season, Night Moves isn't being knowing or ironic or nostalgic about the genre. It's a contemporary thriller with its own agenda. It is also more revealing about the 1970s than many of that decade's so-called landmark films - The Conversation or All the President's Men, for example - because it's not consciously striving to say anything 'significant'.
Night Moves should be up there in the movie pantheon alongside The Big Sleep, Chinatown and The Grifters. Maybe in another eight years' time, they'll show it on TV again.