The Birth of Night Moves: Alan Sharp on the Edge of America

The film’s critiques have been combined, and it did not make a revenue in the summer time of 1975. . . .  however 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 everlasting evocation of the zeitgeist. This Technicolor neo-noir, together with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), reinvented and redeemed the personal detective film.

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The sixties have been ending and Alan Sharp, a younger Scottish novelist in America, found his muse on the frontier. By then all the things appeared to be falling apart. Hopes and certainties had evaporated. Consensus was fractured. It was the bloody season of political assassinations. Thomas McGuane, one other wild and libidinous younger writer, would start 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 method to the glowing waters, the fetid swamps, the heavy air of the Florida Keys.

It was a pilgrimage for a writer who liked John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) and, adopted at delivery, 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 cease before Mexico, that fantasy vacation spot for escaping renegades and the extra irredeemable dropouts of the counterculture. But in Sharp’s outsider grasp of American fable, such characters by no means really escaped. Like the coast of California or the Rio Grande, the Keys have been the edge of America – a spot of spectacular end result or of resignation and decay.

During this go to in the spring of 1968, one stop on an epic cross-country street journey together 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 identify was Paula and she or he was romantically concerned with an unlikely married man. She was no magnificence. Sharp’s then-wife Liz remembers:

She was a hard-nosed little lady who was very much alone and was having an affair with a person who was married to a bossy type of woman. That they had boats and did excursions into the water the place you would look by way of a glass backside. This affair wasn’t with the wife’s approval, however it was weird. 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 however the wife seemed unaware of it. But not concerned. It was a very odd enterprise.

Alan Sharp later elaborated:

[Paula] was from Malone up in New York State. I stated, “What’s your deal here?” I principally asked her why she’s with this guy, who was a sort of conch, fishery man. And not a studly dude. She stated, “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 turned my heroine.

Paula, Sharp recognised, was an American archetype: the type of “slightly shop-soiled, self-respecting” lady who by no means expects things to end up properly. He needed to write down that sort of character. He stored her in mind as he continued his journey across Texas, then exploring the ghost towns of New Mexico, all the option to Los Angeles in the weeks after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Two years later Sharp was back on the street, this time in Mexico. Passing by means of the metropolis of Tepic, he had the uncanny experience of stepping out of reality and into a well-known film landscape. Early one morning he’d sat in the bar of the practice station and located 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 Occasions. Sharp was hardly as broke as Fred C. Dobbs in Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), however he let his imagination play and threw in a touch of the novel To Have and Have Not (1937): “You know how it is in Tepic in the mornings,” adopting the voice of the basic Hemingway insider taking us into his confidence. Outdoors “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 mostly in Hollywood, and it also gave Sharp, who once described himself as “pathologically promiscuous,” a chance 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 time. Remembering Paula of the Florida Keys, he started sketching two new spec screenplays. The first was referred to as Tepic in the Morning. Sharp registered a 144-page draft with the Library of Congress for copyright functions in early February 1972, and made plans to direct the film himself in Mexico that summer time. The story was a Bogart/Huston pastiche enriched by Sharp’s Mexican street journey. However the script would depart from convention. In 1971, he described a state of affairs

by which we arrange the thriller framework, then don’t use it. [We have] the commonplace thriller scene – the expatriate in the small Mexican town, the arrival of the woman, the corrupt police official, the stolen cash . . . then we depart the framework [. . .] [It’s] like being in an enormous costly home with all these rooms and loos and beds and you set a sleeping bag down on the flooring. I hope it’s a sort of alienation impact.

However the deliberate 1972 manufacturing didn’t go ahead, and Tepic was put on maintain. 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.

Ted Danson and Margot Kidder in Little Treasure (Alan Sharp, 1985)

The screenplay centres on a personality instantly inspired by Paula of the Florida Keys. Margo is a former stripper who comes right down to an unnamed city in Mexico – Sharp finally filmed in Tepoztlán and other places in the states of Morelos and Durango – at the invitation of her long-absent father, a former financial institution robber. While there she meets an American expatriate, Eugene, who’s drifting by way of the distant towns of Mexico projecting films. After her father dies, Margo drags Eugene back to America on a quixotic seek for her dad’s long-buried and probably legendary loot in the ghost cities of New Mexico. The eventual movie does for a time depart its generic framework – in a frankly obscure and meandering method. As a stripper, Margot refuses to “drop her string” and appear bottomless. When she transgresses this private rule at the insistence of a rich shopper at a personal celebration, she has an emotional breakdown. The relationship goes to hell: the obsessive Margo shoots Eugene (non-fatally) when he decides to name off the search for the loot.

However the collapse of the 1972 production did not cease Sharp’s career momentum. He was established in Hollywood and had come a great distance from the provincial Scottish town of Greenock. Now dwelling together with his family in a home with a pool in the vicinity of the legendary Chateau Marmont, Sharp developed a passion 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 influence 20th Century-Fox to offer him the movie’s giant 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. Though their house 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 brand new spec screenplay, a personal detective story, reusing some of the similar primary parts – the Paula archetype, Mexican treasure, a thriller framework to be deserted mid-drama – in addition to different gleanings from his visits to Key West and Los Angeles in 1968.

Sharp figured it might begin as a personal detective pastiche, following the typical pathways of the style, however then the detective’s investigation would dissipate. Along the method he may fall into a love affair in the Keys with a troublesome lady like Paula. Collectively they might run off with the loot. The romance would “end in disaster” and the thriller would stay unsolved. The movie would mirror what Sharp outlined 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 Finish of Wishing, and all through its manufacturing 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 usually thought-about to be the object of his quest, though what it incorporates remains a mystery. The title would not be modified to Night Moves till postproduction.

Night Moves

Jennifer Warren as Paula in Night Strikes

Based mostly on the high quality of Sharp’s work-in-progress, producer Robert M. Sherman arranged to help fund the writing course of. Sherman had formerly been at the CMA expertise company after which turned a production government at 20th Century-Fox. Now he worked with administrators 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 manufacturing was Jerry Schatzberg’s street 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 strategy.

In early 1973, a draft of the screenplay reached Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had made him one of the leading renegade administrators of what can be referred to as the New Hollywood. However Penn hadn’t made a function film in a number of years. Exhausted by the making of his radical anti-western Little Huge Man (1970) and a shocked bystander at the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Penn was in a state of disillusion. He remembered:

I went via a very troublesome period after Little Massive Man. [. . .] Truly . . . I lost my id. I simply gave up on issues. I misplaced myself. For three years I ended doing what really made me completely happy and what I actually needed to do. [. . .] Once I decided I needed to direct once more, I just chose the first script handy. Impulsively and without really serious about it I simply informed myself I used to be going to direct Alan Sharp’s screenplay.

The making of Night Moves is the story of the collaboration of two artists of starkly totally different sensibilities – Alan Sharp the hopeless fatalist, Arthur Penn the agitating progressive. Every was simply starting to descend from his peak of cultural relevance. Sharp and Penn came collectively in 1973 to make a dark movie about an America bereft of answers. All the things appeared in place for a triumph. Finally, in careers affected by compromise, there was both an enough price range and inventive freedom. Gene Hackman’s efficiency would expertly particularise an archetype fracturing before our eyes – the knightly personal detective unable to unravel his case, the macho American male determined for certainty but misplaced at sea. However neither Penn nor Sharp was glad with the resulting movie they usually disagreed over its remaining type. After an extended delay, Warner Bros. minimize its losses and dumped Night Moves into cinemas with a half-hearted publicity marketing campaign. The film’s critiques have been combined, and it did not make a revenue in the summer time of 1975. That season was dominated by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which offered Hollywood with a brand new and super-profitable mannequin of movie production.

And yet Night Strikes has gone on to be recognised as one of the defining movies of the 1970s, both as a profound human drama and as an everlasting evocation of the zeitgeist. This Technicolor neo-noir, along with Robert Altman’s The Lengthy Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), reinvented and redeemed the personal detective movie. A reactionary, nostalgia-crazed culture business had tried to neuter the genre, scale back it to a repertoire of clichéd gestures. This trio of footage reasserted movie noir as a really perfect cinematic language to explore the darkness at the coronary heart of America.

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Because of Liz Sharp, Dan Sharp, and Nat Segaloff.

Night Moves

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.
Writer’s phone interview with Liz Sharp, 9 October 2017.
E mail from Dan Sharp to writer, 25 September 2017.

Books and Articles

John Barkham, “Self-Identification Pervades Sharp’s Work.” Fort Lauderdale News, 16 Might 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 Types of Means (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade (New York: Bantam, 1974 [1973]).

Janet L. Meyer, Sydney Pollack: A Important Filmography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008 [1998]).

Nat Segaloff, Arthur Penn: American Director (Lexington: College Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Alan Sharp, “In the Shade of New Mexico.” West magazine (Los Angeles Occasions), 26 Might 1968.

Alan Sharp, “Mexico: Reflections in a Rear-View Mirror.” West journal (Los Angeles Occasions), 20 December 1970.

  1. Gordon Smith, “Two Thirds of Alan Sharp.” Scottish International, January 1972.

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All photographs are screenshots from the films’ DVD.

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