“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”
Harper is the rare case of a film whose literary origin and cinematic style come from the same source. It was adapted from Ross Macdonald’s novel The Moving Target, which, upon publication in 1949, was a blatant attempt at emulating the private eye success of author Raymond Chandler. Macdonald too based his story around a private detective, Lew Archer, who resided in Los Angeles and regularly dealt with wealthy — often amoral — clients. And while the author would eventually step out of Chandler’s shadow with later novels like The Galton Case (1959) and the brilliant Black Money (1966), it remains a statement of fact that The Moving Target is his most derivative work.
It is then fitting that when it came time to adapt The Moving Target into a film, Paramount Studios decided to emulate the structure of one of the greatest Chandler adaptations to date: The Big Sleep. Granted, producer Elliot Kastner said he wanted a script that “had balls,” but this desire for machismo didn’t get in the way of his commercial savvy, and he believed the same formula that turned Chandler’s confusing novel into a hit in 1946 would work wonders if applied to the technicolor gloss of the 1960s. I’m happy to report that Kastner was right.
The film’s minimal poster design.
To call Harper a modern spin on The Big Sleep wouldn’t be far from the truth. The film welcomes the comparison, in fact, as screenwriter William Goldman updates the characters and settings to reflect a self-awareness of the detective genre. In one scene, Lew Harper (changed from Archer) points out how difficult it is to break down a door with his shoulder. In another, he turns down an early morning drink and claims he isn’t much of a smoker. When pressed on the matter, Harper calls himself a “new type” of detective — a claim made for the sake of the audience as much as it is for his employer. You can practically feel Goldman winking offscreen.
And while Harper (Paul Newman) may offer a tweaked version of the screen sleuth, the case he’s hired to make sense of is otherwise pretty standard. Harper is called upon by millionaire Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to locate her missing husband — a thread that once tugged, unravels a conspiracy of hidden agendas, manipulative clients, and a particularly nasty cult in the hills. Familiar, yet different. That’s the formula that’s put forth by director Jack Smight, who does his best Howard Hawks impression in balancing screwball with the screwed up.
Paul Newman as Harper “Your husband keeps lousy company, Mrs. Sampson, as bad as there is in L.A. And that’s as bad as there is.”
The film veers into dramatic territory on occasion, usually when Harper’s wife Susan (Janet Leigh) shows up to bust his chops. The two are going through a divorce, and it’s obvious that the detective is stalling the process because he still has feelings for her. These scenes are executed well, but even then, Goldman and Smight speed through them, preferring to focus on the lunacy of the case or the wit of Harper’s dialogue. In a film that’s mostly defined by aesthetic, it proves a wise decision.
In keeping with this, the performances in Harper are engagingly over-the-top. Bacall has a ball playing Elaine Sampson, in what amounts to a 180 degree turn from her character in The Big Sleep– her curt exchanges with Harper will call to mind the classic scene between Marlowe and General Sternwood. Elsewhere, the film benefits from the scenery-chewing of Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner, the former as a faded actress and the latter a playboy who may not be as shallow as he appears. Both serve as playful foils for the probing Harper. Pamela Tiffin’s promiscuous Miranda also trades quips with the detective, albeit in a more seductive manner. She and Sleep‘s Carmen Sternwood would’ve had quite the time together.
Harper (Paul Newman) going to work on faded movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters).
As the title character, Paul Newman hits all the right notes. The actor could talk a kitten out of a tree if need be, and he puts this gift to use in a performance that keeps the charisma of a part like Hud (1963) without the emotional baggage. In fact, he whips through a series of hunches, accents, and actions so effectively you almost start to wonder why he’s too poor to afford new coffee folgers. Frank Sinatra was Kastner’s original choice, but after seeing Newman anchor the film, there’s little denying that he was the right man to bring the character to life.
With Newman’s magnetism leading the way, Harper was met with box office success and positive reviews from critics. And whether or not it was coincidental, it was the first in a new wave of detective films– as evidenced by the flood of releases (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) that followed. It even received a sequel, The Drowning Pool, nine years later.
Paul Newman in Harper “You got a way of starting conversations that end conversation.”
So while Harper’s reliance on the past has kept it from becoming a classic in its own right, the lively mood and loaded cast are enough to warrant a viewing. “This detective work is really fun!” notes Wagner’s character at one point, and in the grand scheme of commercial noir, you’d be pressed to find a film that so lives up to its claim. B
TRIVIA: Due to copyright concerns, and Newman’s winning streak with films that started with the letter “H” (The Hustler, Hud, Hombre), the character of Lew Archer was changed to Lew Harper.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.