“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”
Harper is the rare case of a film whose literary and cinematic origin come from the same source. It was adapted from Ross Macdonald’s novel The Moving Target, which, upon release in 1949, was derided as a blatant attempt to capture the success of crime 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 obvious even today that The Moving Target was born out of emulation.
It is then fitting that when it came time to adapt The Moving Target into a film, Paramount Studios decided to emulate one of the greatest Chandler adaptations to date: The Big Sleep. Producer Elliot Kastner said he wanted a script that “had balls” but still had commercial appeal, and felt that the formula that turned Sleep into a hit in 1946 could be updated to appeal to younger viewers. Different, but the same. In many ways, what Kastner was doing was laying the groundwork for what would become the modern Hollywood “reboot.” I’m pleased to report that unlike so many reboots, however, this one actually works.
The film’s minimal poster design.
To call Harper a ’60s riff on The Big Sleep would not be an insult. The film welcomes the comparison, in fact, as screenwriter William Goldman updates the characters to reflect a self-awareness of the history of detective cinema. 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, he calls himself a “new type” of detective — a claim made for the sake of the audience as much as it is for his employer.
While Harper (Paul Newman) may appear new and improved, the case he’s hired to make sense of is otherwise pretty standard. Millionaire Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) tasks him with locating her missing husband — a thread that once tugged, unravels a conspiracy of hidden ploys, scheming clients, and a particularly nasty cult group in the Hollywood Hills. Director Jack Smight does an admirable Howard Hawks impression here, balancing moments of screwball with dialogue that matches its colorful setting (“The bottom is loaded with nice people. Only cream and bastards rise to the top”).
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 in the midst of a divorce, and it’s obvious the detective is stalling the process because he still has feelings for her. These scenes are well done, but they lack in any real resonance, as the film does nothing to illustrate how this affects him or his handling of the case. Harper is about the spectacle of detective work, and wisely, the filmmakers spend most of their time in this lighter arena.
The rest of the performances in Harper are gleefully over-the-top. Bacall has a blast playing Elaine Sampson, in what amounts to a 180 degree turn from her role in The Big Sleep– her curt exchanges with Harper call to mind the classic scene between Marlowe and General Sternwood. The film also 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 trades additional 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 charismatic 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 presence of a Hud (1963) without the emotional baggage. You can tell how much fun he’s having, and like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, he has the star magnetism needed for such an iconic role. In fact, he whips through a series of hunches, accents, and actions so effectively you almost start to wonder why (or how) he’s too poor to afford new coffee folgers. Frank Sinatra was Kastner’s original choice, but after watching Newman, there’s little denying that he was the right man to bring Lew to life.
Upon release, Harper was met with box office success and positive reviews from critics. It revived interest in the detective genre and was the first in a wave of films (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) that poked fun at the its conventions. 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 playful cast are more than enough to warrant a watch. “This detective work is really fun!” notes Wagner’s character at one point, and in the grand scheme of ’60s 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 of 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.