Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall
What’s it about?
This adaptation of Ross Macdonald’s novel The Moving Target features Paul Newman as an LA private detective named Lew Harper. He is enlisted by his old friend, a lawyer named Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), on behalf of wealthy client Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), who lives in Santa Teresa. When he goes to visit her in her plush mansion, she explains that her husband Ralph has suddenly disappeared. She suspects that he is eloping with another woman.
With the help of her hormonal teenage daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) and the latter’s main crush Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner) he sets off on a trail of investigation. However, as he meets with one unsavoury character after another, it soon becomes apparent that the reasons behind Mr. Sampson’s disappearance are rather more serious than his wife had initially anticipated.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
After the late-1950s, when the film noir era came to a close, films featuring private detectives as protagonists had rapidly been replaced by the likes of spy thrillers, heist movies and psychological chillers. However, in the mid-1960s, Harper, starring the hugely popular Paul Newman, updated the old Los Angeles settings, back-alley beatings and hardboiled cynicism for a new generation of moviegoers. The novel that it was based on was entitled The Moving Target, one of a series of Ross Macdonald crime novels featuring a protagonist named Lew Archer. However, both the character’s surname and the movie’s title were altered to Harper - partially due to a rights issue, and partially because Newman had two previous hits beginning with the letter H: The Hustler in 1961 and Hud in 1963.
The film was also a major breakthrough for novelist-turned-screenwriter William Goldman. He became hot Hollywood property as a result of the film’s success and subsequently went on to become involved in the screenplays for a number of classics through the years, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Princess Bride (1987) and Misery (1990).
A second film starring Newman as Lew Harper, The Drowning Pool, was released in 1975 during another detective flick resurgence. However, it was largely panned by critics and failed to capture the same sense of fun that its predecessor did. The star also played an ageing detective named Harry Ross in the 1998 film Twilight, who was clearly inspired by the same character.
The most distinctive location seen in the film is the bizarre mountain-top temple which is presided over by a religious cult leader character played by Strother Martin. The construction has a rather fascinating history in itself; it was built especially for the film on a tract of land owned by counterculture radical and animal rights activist Lewis Beach Marvin III. It became known as the Moonfire Temple and has been used extensively as a venue for movies, fashion shoots and videos. It was also used for private gigs by the likes of Janis Joplin and The Doors, and even reportedly played host to a number of real-life cult rituals - including one held by the infamous Charles Manson.
How does it hold up?
Harper is a film which clearly has one foot in the night-time visual language of film noir, and another in the sunnier fashions of the 1960s. This can be seen right from the opening scene with takes place as the credits roll: Harper opens one of the window blinds to let that bright California sun leak into his otherwise rather gloomy office flat. Yes! Audiences were finally reminded of California’s main real-life attraction in a detective film that’s set there. Sure, there are still plenty of dark and dubious bars here which are inhabited by the usual equally dark and dubious characters, but there is also a healthy helping of energised contemporary dancing, some fast-cut action and even one or two graphic depictions of violence which would not have featured in earlier incarnations of this kind of story.
The story itself is rather convoluted and, arguably, doesn’t make that much sense. However, to criticise Harper for that would be to miss the point. It could, perhaps, be classified as what Quentin Tarantino has termed “a hangout movie”. Much of the runtime is spent on the characters bouncing off each other, exchanging William Goldman’s razor-sharp dialogue and generally letting us enjoy being in their company.
“The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.”
It’s a film which also relies heavily on both Paul Newman’s hefty charisma and a top-notch supporting cast to colour in this rogue’s gallery. Newman’s Harper isn’t entirely your typical noir protagonist; while he exhibits a classically cynical mentality, he tempers it with a certain dashing and boyish charm which the likes of Glenn Ford or Humphrey Bogart never possessed.
While the ageing Lauren Bacall’s career may have been waning at this point, she relishes the opportunity here to unleash some poised, cool bitchiness as the missing Ralph’s disenchanted wife. There are some classic pieces of flying fur during her scenes with her pouty and sultry daughter, played by Pamela Tiffin. Janet Leigh’s turn as Harper’s estranged wife Susan is equally enjoyable. While her scenes with Newman don’t really add much to the plot, they have a great chemistry and sense of humour which makes their onscreen sparring a pleasure to watch. Arthur Hill oozes barely-concealed malice as a sadistic bad guy who keeps calling Harper “old stick” in a pseudo-amicable manner. Shelley Winters is hilarious in a piece of close-to-the-knuckle casting as an erstwhile movie star who has let herself descend into binge eating and alcoholism. There’s also Strother Martin as a seemingly airy-fairy cult leader who (as these types tend to do) conceals a deeply dodgy operation.
Sure, when all’s said and done, Harper is little more than a slick all-star vehicle. It also possesses a few dated aspects, such as the obvious rear projection during the driving scenes, the use of under-cranked footage during certain action sequences, not to mention the rather lighthearted playing of the fact that a middle-aged man is revealed to be hankering after the adolescent Miranda. However, the film as a whole is effortlessly enjoyable and it’s easy to see why it was so popular with audiences at the time.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Jack Smight
Script: William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald
Starring: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Strother Martin