Film Noir Review: Harper (1966)

“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”

Harper is a rare case of a film whose literary and cinematic influence derive from the same source. It was adapted from Ross Macdonald’s debut novel The Moving Target, which, upon its release in 1949, was passed off as a cheap attempt to ride the coattails of past pulp writers. His private detective, Lew Archer, lifted his surname from the partner of Sam Spade, the protagonist in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). His Los Angeles residence, laconic demeanor, and revolving door of wealthy, amoral clients, were pried right from the still active adventures of Raymond Chandler and his respective detective, Philip Marlowe. Chandler also served as the blueprint for Macdonald’s colorful, metaphor-drenched prose.

To his credit, however, Macdonald eventually worked his way out from under these influences, and developed a more distinct, character-driven approach on later novels like The Galton Case (1959) and the superb Black Money (1966). Today, he is seen as one of the most revered crime writers of the 20th century, and The Moving Target as little more than an emulatory footnote on his lengthy bibliography.

It is then fitting, and somewhat ironic, that when it came time to adapt The Moving Target into a feature film, Paramount Studios also decided to emulate one of the greatest Chandler adaptations ever made: The Big Sleep. Producer Elliot Kastner wanted a script that “had balls” without sacrificing commercial appeal, and he (along with screenwriter William Goldman) believed the game plan that turned the labyrinthian Sleep into a hit in 1946 could be updated to appeal to younger viewers. Different, yet the same. In many ways, what Kastner was doing laid the groundwork for what would become the modern Hollywood “reboot.” Only, in this particular case, I’m pleased to report that it was a success.

Harper movie poster The film's minimal poster design.

The film’s minimal poster design.

To call Harper a groovy riff on The Big Sleep would not be an insult. In fact, the film welcomes the comparison, as Goldman updates the characters to reflect a self-awareness of detective cinema and its tropes. In one scene, Lew Harper (changed from Archer) points out how taxing it is to break down a door with his shoulder. In another, he turns down an early morning drink and reveals that he isn’t much of a smoker. When questioned on the matter, he passes himself off as a “new type” of detective — an announcement made for the sake of the audience as much as it is for his employer.

To balance out the tweaked detective DNA of Harper (Paul Newman), the case he’s hired to make sense of is played out on familiar ground. Millionaire Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) tasks him with locating her missing husband — a thread that once tugged, unravels a conspiracy of shady dealings, ulterior motives, and a particularly nasty cult hidden in the Hollywood Hills. Director Jack Smight does an admirable Howard Hawks impression here, balancing moments of sudden violence with screwball dialogue that matches its sunny 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."
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 melodramatic territory on occasion, usually whenever 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. Admittedly, these scenes are well executed by the actors, but they lack in any real resonance, as the film does nothing to illustrate how this affects Harper or his handling of the case. Harper is about the spectacle of detecting, and Smight, for the most part, speeds past these moments of emotional baggage for additional scenery of L.A. and Pamela Tiffin (as Sampson’s daughter, Miranda) in a bikini.

Barring Leigh, who’s forced to play her part stiff-lipped, the performances in Harper are gleefully over-the-top. Bacall oozes distrust as Elaine Sampson, in what amounts to a 180 degree turn from her role in The Big Sleep– her curt exchanges with Harper calling to mind the opening scene between Marlowe and General Sternwood. Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner chew their respective scenery as a faded actress and a hound dog playboy who may not be as dumb as he seems. Both serve as foils for the probing Harper, who seems forever amused in their presence. Pamela Tiffin’s Miranda hogs the majority of the film’s sex appeal, in a performance that’s a worthy successor to Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) in Sleep. Those kindred spirits would’ve had quite the time together.

Harper (Paul Newman) going to work on faded movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters).

Harper (Paul Newman) going to work on faded movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters).

As the title character, Paul Newman steals the show. The Academy Award winner always brought a charming, exuberant quality to his roles, and he puts this to use in a performance that keeps all the presence of a Hud (1963) without the nihilistic bend. Like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, Newman’s appeal goes beyond the written word and infuses a liveliness that’s so desperately needed when moving from literature into film. In lesser hands (Frank Sinatra was the Kastner’s original choice), Harper could’ve slipped into a bad Bogart impression. With Newman, he became his own elastic, sardonic beast. In fact, he tears through a mine field of crimes, clues, and fist fights so effectively you almost start to wonder why he’s too poor to afford fresh coffee.

Upon its initial release, Harper was met with box office success and positive reviews from critics. It  revived interest in a flagging detective genre, and was the first in a wave of films (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) that toyed with its conventions. It was even the recipient of a sequel, The Drowning Pool, nine years later, which, in the often fatal stakes of film noir, is an achievement all on its own.

Paul Newman in Harper "You got a way of starting conversations that end conversation."

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 masterpiece on the level of its predecessors, the self-effacing mood and playful cast it puts forth is more than enough to make for an enjoyable viewing. “This detective work is really fun!” quips Wagner’s character at one point, and in the grand scheme of film noir, you’d be pressed to find one 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 HustlerHudHombre), 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.

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One Response to Film Noir Review: Harper (1966)

  1. I don’t recall a darned detail from the movie, but I know I had a good time watching it. Wonder why they turned Archer into Harper, but then I wonder about a lot of things.

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