NEW YORK — Alan Sharp, a screenwriter whose brand of dark, lyrical, and densely plotted work, including the screenplay for Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves,” made him a critically admired if largely unknown figure in Hollywood, died Feb. 8 in Los Angeles. He was 79.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter Louise Sharp.
Mr. Sharp, who was born in Scotland, specialized in scripts that turned the tables on movie conventions. In the 1970s, his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love, and friendship.
In “The Hired Hand” (1971), starring and directed by Peter Fonda in his first film after “Easy Rider,” Mr. Sharp constructed what film critic J. Hoberman called a hippie Western, in which true love is put through its paces only to stumble at the finish line. For director Robert Aldrich’s “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972), starring Burt Lancaster, Mr. Sharp’s descriptions of torture and killing are so overwhelming that the line between good guys and bad guys seems irrelevant.
In “Night Moves” (1975) Gene Hackman plays a private eye who cannot figure out the whodunit of his own crumbling marriage. An often-quoted exchange from the film encapsulated Mr. Sharp’s dark vision and caustic wit.
A man is watching a football game on television, and his wife asks him who is winning.
“Nobody,” he replies. “One side’s just losing more slowly than the other.”
Alan Sharp was born in Alyth, Scotland, to a single mother. He was adopted at 6 weeks by Margaret and Joseph Sharp, who belonged to a local Salvation Army church. His adoptive father was a dockworker.
Mr. Sharp left school at 14 and began a series of jobs, which he described in 2004:
“Apprentice in local shipyards; worked as assistant to a private detective, English teacher in Germany, construction laborer, dishwasher, night switchboard operator for burglar alarm firm, and a packer for a carpet company; worked for IBM; bummed around. Writer. Military service: British National Service, 1952-54.”
He began his writing career as a novelist, publishing the first two novels of a planned trilogy — “A Green Tree in Gedde” (1965), which was initially banned in Scotland for its sexual content, and “The Wind Shifts” (1968) — before settling in Hollywood to write for the movies. His first five scripts were filmed in quick succession: the thriller “The Last Run,” with George C. Scott; “The Hired Hand”; “Ulzana’s Raid”; “Billy Two Hats,” another Western, with Gregory Peck; and “Night Moves.” He also wrote screenplays for “The Osterman Weekend” (1983), an adaptation of a Robert Ludlum novel, which was directed by Sam Peckinpah; “Little Treasure” (1985), starring Margot Kidder, which Mr. Sharp also directed; and the 1995 film “Rob Roy,” a historical adventure starring Liam Neeson.
Mr. Sharp was married four times, once to novelist Beryl Bainbridge. Besides his daughter Louise, he leaves his wife, Harriet Sharp; two sons; three other daughters; two stepsons; and 14 grandchildren.