Slick con-man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) is saddled with the task of transporting 9-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) to her aunt’s home in Missouri. Addie, it turns out, is a supremely clever girl. She quickly gets wise to Moses’ larcenous ways and demonstrates a genuine (and perhaps inherited) gift for running his con; they temporarily delay her journey and move from town to town selling overpriced Bibles to new widows. Director Peter Bogdanovich gives their nefarious dealings and developing relationship a tart but never astringent tone — and gets a stupendous performance from Tatum (who remains the youngest person to win an Academy Award). Director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, who would ultimately work on six of Bogdanovich’s films, gave a lovely, high-contrast look to this evocation of Depression-era America. The car scene below, a deceptively complicated moving single-shot, took a day and a half to shoot.
Shot completely on location in Kansas and Missouri, Paper Moon sparkles with a richness only capable in black and white. Cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs is a great camera artist and never better than Paper Moon, where he uses black and white, deep focus and those great long takes to their best advantage. To the untrained eye it will just appear very sharp, but look closely at each frame and notice that everything is in tack sharp focus from the closest object to far in the distance. This deep focus is very difficult to achieve correctly, especially in the night shots, but Kovacs does it so well it is seamless. Watch for the train station sequence where even the children playing in the background are razor sharp. This is a look that can only be achieved using black and white to its fullest potential. New filmmakers take notice. This is how it's supposed to be done.
All this cinematic brilliance would be wasted were it not for the wonderful direction of Bogdanovich. In this his third film, he proves that he is a consummate filmmaker who knows how to move the actors and camera in perfect concert. His craftsmanship of each scene is unmistakable as he brings a fresh and very new approach using Hollywood tricks that are decades old. A lesser director might have used process shots and sets to tell the story, but not Bogdanovich. He shot the entire film in real locations to give it the look and feel of a real thirties road picture. You can almost smell the wide plains and feel the dust as it comes up to slap you in the face. Notice too how he never resorts to sentimentality to move the story along, it is told razor sharp and without tears. This, never more apparent than the final sequence where he pays off the film in grand style.
Tatum, however, even upstages her father with what has to be the best youth performance in history. She is funny and moving when need be, and always charming, eliciting laughs many times based solely on her malleable facial expressions. Her show-stopping five minute shot, no matter how long it took to film, proves just how fully Tatum was able to embody little Addie Pray. The movie is always entertaining, with never a dull spot, with a strong supporting performance by Madeline Kahn to help keep things rolling during the middle. This is a true classic that should be seen by people of all ages, I can't recommend it enough!