Gene Hackman rarely has a misstep, well, this is not one of them. This is a terrific film, it’s dark and messy, and the ending is disappointing. It’s a 70s thing.
Being a private detective in Los Angeles in the early 70s wasn’t easy, but it was scenic. Jim Rockford lived at the beach in a trailer in a parking lot. Harry O moved up from San Diego and he also lived on the beach.
Hackman’s P.I. was also named Harry but he lived in a split level home with his wife, who was cheating on him.
A former football player, Harry runs a one-man agency, and his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark) keeps trying to get him to close it and take a job with a bigger firm, which he snidely calls an information business. He takes a case to find a former actresses’s daughter, 16 years old. Harry’s research tells him it’s important for her to get the daughter back, income from the daughters trust is all she lives on.
Bruce Surtees the “prince of darkness” was the director or photography on the film. Surtees worked with the contrast of light and dark, good at highlighting his subjects in a sea of blackness. Surtees often worked with Eastwood in the era.
The film’s music was slight, but effective, a jazzy score provided by Michael Small.
Director Arthur Penn had worked with Hackman on Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s films included The Miracle Worker, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. In the film’s featurette, Penn described Hackman’s character as at odds with everyone around him.
Harry’s wife owns an antique shop. She’s having an affair that Harry finds out at the beginning of the film. Right under his eye. He tails them after they get out of the movie.
He confronts the boyfriend (Harris Yulin), who turns the encounter on an examination of Harry’s life from the intimate details the wife told him. The boyfriend doesn’t view the affair as serious, and tries to goad him into a fight. Harry then confronts the wife, who is disappointed he didn’t ask her first, or join them after the movie since he was there. She doesn’t seem to feel very guilty. It seems she is trying to get his attention; she’s crticial of his life but never reveals why she strayed.
The dialogue in this era was quite interesting: “Who’s winning?” “Nobody. One team is just losing slower than the other.”
Harry plays chess in his car with no one. He studies the game, famous chess games. Later he show her knight moves that won a game. The other chess player didn’t see the moves and lost; he always regretted it. Harry says he regrets it and he wasn’t even playing.
His one lead to the daughter is Quinton (James Woods), who works on the fringe of the movie business. It takes Harry to New Mexico to a film location to a stuntman, Marv Ellman, who the daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith) was with. Marv was involved with both the daughter and the mother. Harry befriends the stunt coordinator, Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns), on the movie set. Ziegler knows the mother from the movie business. Quinton shows up to work on an airplane. Quinton and Marv don’t get along.
The answer might involve Tom Iverson, the ex-husband, and Delly’s stepfather, who currently runs a fishing business in Florida. Harry travels there to see if Delly has taken refuge there, where he becomes intertwined with Paula (Jennifer Warren), Tom’s girlfriend. Delly is there, Tom is her father-figure, but it’s a bit more twisted than that. Harry confronts Delly who refuses to go back. It’s only about the money. Tom convinces her to go back with Harry.
Before they leave, they go diving in the ocean where they discover a wrecked plane with a body. They leave a marker for the Coast Guard to find in the morning. Then Paula seduces Harry with a sad story about the Kennedys.
The film is full of misdirection and people simply missing what is in front of them.
Delly returns to her mother and Harry gets paid for the job. Delly is dropped back into a bad scene with her mother, which Harry observes as he drives away. Harry then visits the beach home (see, someone lives at the beach) of his wife’s boyfriend. They are in the bedroom as Harry makes himself at home. Harry has decided to close his agency, he tells her.
Harry learns that Delly has gotten a SAG card to work as an extra. There is a message on his answering machine from her, but it is interrupted by a visit from his wife. They wind up in bed, even though they’ve been separated.
Harry’s childhood haunts him, his family was broken. It runs through the film, his inability to solve the fracture in his life. His wife sees it as a breakthrough in their relationship, but he’s remote. He reveals that he tracked down his father, saw him, but couldn’t approach him.
Harry learns that Delly has been killed in an accident on a film. Ziegler was driving the car that wrecked, and he was badly injured. Harry watches the accident film, then visits Delly’s mother, who is concealing her grief in getting drunk. Next, he confronts Quinton, with his suspicion that Delly was murdered. Quinton tells him it was the stuntman in the plane wreckage in the ocean. Harry finds that Iverson never reported the plane in the ocean, so he’s off to Florida. Despite his wife’s wishes, he is driven to find the end to the mystery.
At Iverson’s business, Harry discovers the body of Quinton in a dolphin pen. Harry takes a boat to Iverson’s house where he finds Iverson loading up his boat. Quinton had threatened to go to the cops, he wouldn’t believe that the stuntman’s death was an accident. He was smuggling artwork for months in pieces.
He understands that Iverson went out to the wreckage to remove the smuggled artwork while Paula kept him busy. Harry and Paula go out to the wreckage to retrieve the artwork. “Why don’t you be content you solved the case?” she asks. “I didn’t solve anything, I just fell in on top of it,” he responds.
A seaplane circles the boat firing at Harry, who is hit in the leg, disabling him. Paula finds the artwork and sends it to the surface. The seaplane has landed on the water and advances toward Paula who has surfaced. Harry tries to warn her but she doesn’t hear him. The plane advances, the pilot discovers he is out of bullets. Paula sees Harry waving his arms and turns toward the plane as one of the pontoons fatally striking her. The plane continues on, hitting the large artwork, shearing off a pontoon. The plane crashes next to the boat and begins to sink. Through the observation window on the boat, Harry can see that it is Ziegler, trapped in the plane, as it sinks to the bottom, out of view.
Harry can’t stand up, he can only reach the throttle with a fishing net, the boat speeds up but it only goes in circles. He is bleeding out, as he pounds his fist saying, “I missed it.”
The film is downbeat and has a somber vibe throughout. Hackman is quite good in the role, he’s a man who has worked hard to establish meaning in his life, and now it doesn’t mean what he thought it did.