When Peter Bogdanovich made Paper Moon (1973) he was flying high. His first film, Targets (1968), had been a critical and cult success, while his next two — The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972) — were critical and commercial hits. Paper Moon continued that winning streak (the trouble started after it), and it may just be his best film (though I do have a soft spot for What’s Up, Doc?). Despite being every bit as grounded in a nostalgia for earlier times and earlier films (bear in mind that Bogdanovich is also a film historian), it’s more its own movie than much of his work. Visually, it looks more like a Depression-era still photo than any specific Depression-era movie, which results in a film that looks more like it’s about the 1930s than an imitation of a 1930s movie. It may also be the best screenplay by Alvin Sargent that Bogdanovich ever worked from — or at least, Bogdanovich made made it look that way. (It’s very hard to know just how much a screenplay was written to a filmmaker’s specifications, or how much it was altered during shooting.)
The story is simple. Young Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) finds herself orphaned with the death of her single — and apparently rather free-spirited — mother. The arrival of a man named Moses Pray (her real-life father, Ryan O’Neal) at the funeral, provides the other mourners a chance to pack Addie off to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri. Moses — or Moze, as he’s called — is reluctant to take her along, but sees a chance to blackmail some money out of the deal. But his dreams of pocketing a windfall of $200 and sending Addie off on a train come to nothing — the wily young girl demands the greatly diminished sum that was meant for her care. As a result, he finds himself saddled with this grimly adult child (who also is fairly certain that Moze is her father) as his assistant in a con-game, Bible-selling racket on the road to St. Joe. In essence, Moze scans obituaries for widows he can convince to pay the balance on Bibles their husbands “ordered” for them — with their names embossed in “Child of the Manger gold letters.” Unsurprisingly, Addie is an adept, if unruly, student.
The scam is only part of the story, which takes a number of turns before reaching its end — including Moze taking up with a carnival dancer named Trixie Delight (a cheerfully trampy, yet not unlikable turn by Madeline Kahn). The period detail and sound is pretty much perfect. The story is beguiling, the dialogue sparkles and the performances are first-rate. (Tatum O’Neal won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and would never be quite as good again.) It’s not the same by any means, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? suggests that the Coen Brothers are great admirers of this film. All this and a terrific soundtrack of 1930s songs and radio shows.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Paper Moon Tuesday, Nov. 26, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.