Film Noir Review: Harper (1966)

“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”

Harper was adapted from Ross Macdonald’s debut novel The Moving Target, which, upon its release in 1949, was derided as a cheap imitation of other pulp writers. Macdonald’s detective, Lew Archer, lifted his surname from a character in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). His Los Angeles residence and revolving door of wealthy clients were pried directly from Raymond Chandler and his detective, Philip Marlowe. Chandler also served as the blueprint for Macdonald’s colorful prose.

To his credit, Macdonald eventually worked his way out from under these influences, and developed a more distinct, character-driven approach on 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 career.

It is then somewhat ironic that when it came time to adapt The Moving Target into a feature film, Paramount Studios decided to emulate the most celebrated of the Chandler adaptations: The Big Sleep. Producer Elliot Kastner wanted a script that “had balls” without sacrificing commercial appeal, and he believed the blueprint that turned the labyrinthian Sleep into a hit in 1946 could be updated to appeal to younger viewers. Different, but the same. In some ways, Kastner was laying the groundwork for what would become the modern Hollywood “reboot.” Only, in this particular case, I’m pleased to report that it maintained its creative bite.

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. The film actually welcomes the comparison, as screenwriter William Goldman updates the characters to reflect a self-awareness of detective tropes. In one scene, Harper (changed from Archer) points out how tough it is to break down a door with his shoulder. In another, he turns down an early morning drink. 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 client.

To balance out Harper’s (Paul Newman) unorthodox attitude, the case he’s hired to make sense of is played fairly straightforward. 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 violence with colorful dialogue that matches its 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 melodrama 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. These scenes are well executed, 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 it feels as though Smight speeds past these dramatic spots for more scenery of Los Angeles and Pamela Tiffin (as Sampson’s daughter, Miranda) in a bikini.

Barring Leigh, the other performances in Harper are gleefully over-the-top. Bacall oozes immorality as Sampson, in what amounts to a 180 degree turn from her role in The Big Sleep– her curt exchanges with Harper even call 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 constantly amused in their presence. Tiffin’s Miranda takes hold of the film’s sex appeal, in a performance that’s a worthy successor to Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) in Sleep. These 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 lands in the pocket. The Academy Award winner brings an energy to the role that keeps all the magnetism of a Hud (1963) without the emotional baggage. In less nuanced hands– Frank Sinatra was Kastner’s original choice– the character could’ve retreated into a lazy Bogart imitation. With Newman, however, the mothballs are dusted off and the detective gets revamped for the modern day. His Harper runs through a mine field of false leads, clues, and fist fights so effectively you almost start to wonder why (or how) he’s too poor to afford fresh coffee.

Harper was met with box office success and positive reviews from critics in 1966. It  revived interest in the genre, and was the first in a wave of films (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) that found success by toying with detective tropes. 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 spry mood and stellar 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 more 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.

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–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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