CRIMEWATCH: Paper Moon
During the Great Depression young Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) has been orphaned after her mother dies. At the funeral, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) one of her mother’s ex-lovers, pays his respects. Addie seems to think that he could be her father, but he insists he’s not even though they’ve “got the same jaw”. Addie now has to go live at her Aunt’s home in St Joseph, Missouri so Moze kindly offers to take her to the bus depot. On the way, he swindles the brother of the man who crashed the car which killed Addie’s mother for two hundred dollars. He then uses most of the cash to fix up his Model A convertible. When Addie finds out about this she’s livid and demands that he give her the full amount he stole. To calm her down, Moze takes Addie to a small diner and buys her a “Coney Island” (hot dog) and a Nehi (soda pop) but she is intent on getting the money and forces Moze to get it or else she’ll goto the cops. This is where we learn how he makes his living as a con man. He drives through small towns picking out families of the newly deceased. Using a special stamp he inscribes the dead person’s name on a bible, then rings the family up explaining that their relative ordered it for them as a gift before they died. The catch being they hadn’t paid the full amount yet. Seeing it as an obligation, the people gladly fork over the money. At first Addie is put off by Moze’s line of work but soon the two form a partnership and Addie becomes his apprentice, learning all the tricks of the flim flam trade. She even thinks up some pretty clever ideas of her own to make quick cash.
One night while visiting a carnival, Moze encounters a pretty exotic dancer named Miss Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) who he invites to go on the road. Madeline Kahn plays Trixie as a total floozy who knows exactly what she is but has a great sense of humor about it all. Trixie’s young maid, a 15 year old black girl named Imogene (P.J. Johnson) goes too, giving Addie some company. Its obvious that Addie is jealous of Trixie because Moze focuses all his attention on her but after a comical meeting of the minds, Addie decides to give in. When Addie finds out Moze has used most of their money to get a new car just to impress Trixie, her anger resurfaces and she thinks up a way to get rid of her. Moze is tricked into thinking Trixie has cheated on him with a man named Floyd (Burton Gilliam) the clerk at the hotel. Dissapointed by this discovery, he and Addie hit the road again.
When they make a stop in Kansas, Moze comes across a stash of moonshine and steals it, then sells it back to the man (John Hillerman) who owned it. What looks to be the perfect con goes sour when Moze and Addie are driving down a dark dirt road on the way out of town. They spot lights behind them and get pulled over and arrested by Deputy Hardin (Hillerman) who just happens to be the bootlegger’s twin brother. They’re brought to the local jail and booked. Using her wits, Addie asks to use the bathroom and for Moze to take her. This gives them the chance they need to escape. Now wanted by the law, the two must try to get to St. Joe without getting caught.
This film seemed to be tailor made for Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum to play. The natural father/daughter chemistry translated incredibly well to the big screen. It obviously helped make their fictional relationship seem even more true to life. Tatum went on to get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress which made her the youngest winner in the history of the Academy Awards. The supporting cast were all top notch as well including a young Randy Quaid who plays a hick named Leroy that wrestles Moze for ownership of a car.
Paper Moon was expertly photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and its black and white aesthetic was similar to Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Kovacs used a special red filter on the camera to increase the contrast after Orson Welles’ advised him to do so. He also employed deep focus cinematography and extended takes in certain scenes to make the visuals even more stylized and bold. The many period details taken from the Depression era also made it especially authentic, from the music to the clothing to the cars.
This year marks the film’s 40th anniversary but it’s still just as fresh and fun as it must’ve been in 1973. I consider Paper Moon to be a perfect work of cinema. All the actors are superb, its paced well and you just have a great time going on this trip with Addie and Moze. Not only do you get a fantastic road movie/grifting subgenre crime film but a very funny, touching father/daughter story as well. This movie comes highly recommended!