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R.I.P. Alan Sharp, a Writer Too Dark for Hollywood

Warner Bros.

An aging Apache chief, Ulzana, breaks out of the reservation. He has no hope, let alone ambition; he simply wants to get the smell of old age and passivity out of his nostrils. He will kill white people and behave like an Apache. It is the one way he has of ensuring an honorable death. He is pursued by a cavalry detachment, by a young Apache who has signed up with the blue coats, and by a veteran scout who is himself anticipating death.

Harry Moseby was a football player, and now he is a private detective in Florida. Despite his profession, is not very observant. He does not realize his wife is having an affair. But he takes a job, and as he follows its intrigue he has an affair himself. But as he is betrayed and trapped, he does damage to others. The world comes to pieces, though he never intended harm.

These are two films, Ulzana’s Raid (1971) and Night Moves (1975), both written by Alan Sharp, who died last week in Los Angeles at the age of 79. They were both originals, stories thought up for the movies by their writer, and they are both intricate stories of quest and failure. Neither of them was nominated for anything, and only Ulzana’s Raid did any business. But if you want to experience the richness of American films in the early 1970s, they are worth tracking down. You will be surprised how complex they are and how tense. They seem to understand movie narrative in a way so few films do today: He used mystery to draw audiences into his stories, trained them to answer the small puzzles, and then had them ready to grasp the implications he preferred not to underline. And both films are tough, bitter, and bleak, bearing the imprint of an unusual and talented outsider.

Sharp was born in Scotland, near Dundee, in 1934. He was adopted and raised in great poverty and he had no schooling after the age of fourteen. He did all manner of menial and laboring jobs, and then he did his National Service in the military. Somehow he decided to write. He went to London and wrote a novel about incest, A Green Tree in Gedde (1965), which caused a small scandal. He did some television scripts, and then he worked his way to Los Angeles and had a bit of luck. Peter Fonda had just made Easy Rider. The feeble system thought he was a genius with a magic touch, and they were prepared to let him do whatever he liked. Sharp sent him a script, another original, and it became The Hired Hand. It’s the story of a drifting cowboy who hasn’t seen his wife in seven years. He wanders back to her and she says she’ll only tolerate him now as a hired hand. So he signs on and gradually things improve, but an event from his past and the drifting years will catch up with him.

The Hired Hand is out of the ordinary, but it was an opportunity for Fonda to reveal that he wasn’t really a director. Another original script, The Last Run, was set up for John Huston to direct, but he fought with lead actor George C. Scott so that the script was butchered and the directing credit ended up with Richard Fleischer.

Whereas Ulzana’s Raid was right from the start. It would be directed by Robert Aldrich, who had done Kiss Me Deadly. Burt Lancaster was the scout. Jorge Luke was an Apache scout. It’s a film about cruelty and a remorseless landscape, and it was helplessly open at the time to being seen as an allegory on Vietnam. I’m sure Sharp, Aldrich, and Lancaster were aware of that, but it really is a Western, full of respect for the Apache and the semi-desert where they live.

Four years later, Night Moves came along with Arthur Penn as its director—the man who had made Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man. 1975 was a rueful year in America with the full lessons of Watergate and Vietnam sinking in. In the same year, All the President’s Men (a very effective thriller) was telling the country it was going to be all right—because a couple of brave journalists would save the day. Night Moves flopped because it knew that even old standby the private eye was a lost soul, spreading harm and confusion. There’s no doubt about which film looks the most accurate now.

Night Moves dared to have a very subtle plot, beautifully directed by Penn. It had a team of experts making it: Bruce Surtees as cinematographer; George Jenkins doing art direction; Dede Allen editing; and Michael Small writing the music. Gene Hackman gave one of his best performances as Moseby with support from Jennifer Warren, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Susan Clark and Kenneth Mars—see the film and you’ll find you know those faces. It also had James Woods in his late twenties, jittery, brittle, and unreliable, and Melanie Griffith, just seventeen, carnal, amoral, and dangerous (most of all to herself).

No one in the film critic business could surmise why it was not a success. I suppose the country hoped its ordeals were over and was waiting for Jimmy Carter, too scared and too determined to stay in the daylight for Night Moves. It is a deeply upsetting film, and we seem to be ready for it again.

Alan Sharp had other credits. He wrote The Osterman Weekend for Sam Peckinpah, but that film was drastically interfered with. In 1985 Sharp directed a film that he had written—Little Treasure, with Margot Kidder—and I wish it was better. Years later he wrote Rob Roy (with Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange and Tim Roth), and while it is old-fashioned and straightforward it does those things very well. He did television, and there was a feature, Dean Spanley (2008), with Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Northam. It was hardly released; I have never seen it, but some people speak well of it.

Sharp roamed around. He liked New Zealand, Scotland, and America, and he liked women. He was married for a long time and he had several children, one of them with the English novelist Beryl Bainbridge who said she adored him, until one day he went out for cigarettes and never came back. It’s hard to see him as an easygoing man. I daresay he sometimes wished he’d stayed a novelist, just as he would have liked the early ’70s to last longer. Many have that feeling, even though they know it was a bad time, too. Alan Sharp was made for that kind of confusion and for writing characters who tried hard despite their natural failings.