Film Noir Review: Harper (1966)

“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”

Ross Macdonald occupies a rare space in the world of crime fiction. He started out as an expert hack with The Moving Target (1949), a novel that borrowed heavily from the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His private detective, Lew Archer, worked the same Los Angeles socialite crowd that Philip Marlowe did, while his surname was a nod to Sam Spade’s late partner Miles Archer.

To his credit, Macdonald eventually worked his way out from Chandler and Hammett’s shadows, and developed a denser, more character driven-approach on later novels like The Galton Case (1959) and Black Money (1966). Macdonald has since become something of a cult icon in crime fiction, never rising to the heights of his predecessors, but influencing modern writers like John Connelly and Stephen King.

It’s incredibly ironic, then, that when it came time to adapt Macdonald’s work into a film, Paramount Studios opted for his first and least original novel: The Moving Target. Producer Elliot Kastner reportedly wanted a script that “had balls” and commercial appeal, and he believed that by modeling the film after 1946′s The Big Sleep (the literary inspiration for Macdonald’s novel), he could do just that. Different, but mainly the same. In some ways, what Kastner was doing laid the groundwork for what would become the modern Hollywood “reboot.” Only in this case, the plan was successful.

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 explains that he’s “a new type” of detective — a statement made for the sake of the audience as much as it is for his client.

To balance out these changes, the case that Harper (Paul Newman) is hired for 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 real estate fraud, adultery, 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 dialogue that matches its technicolor 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 when Harper’s wife Susan (Janet Leigh) shows up to bust his chops. The two are going through a divorce, though it’s obvious Harper is stalling the process because he still has feelings for her. And while the scenes are well acted, they lack in any real purpose, 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 like Smight speeds past these dramatic spots for more scenery of Los Angeles and Pamela Tiffin (as Sampson’s daughter, Miranda) in a bikini.

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 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 handles most of the film’s sex appeal, in a performance that’s a worthy successor to Sleep‘s Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). These party girls 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).

Paul Newman has so much fun in the title role that it’s hard not to follow suit. He brings a much-needed swagger to the film that keeps all the weight of a Hud (1963) without the cramped emotional baggage. In less nuanced hands (Frank Sinatra was Kastner’s original choice), the role could’ve lapsed into a bad Humphrey Bogart imitation. But with Newman, the mothballs are dusted off and the private detective gets revamped for the modern day. His Harper runs through a mine field of false leads, dumb cops, and fist fights so effectively you almost start to wonder why he’s too poor to afford fresh coffee.

Harper was met with box office success and positive reviews from critics in 1966. It introduced Macdonald to mainstream audiences, and was the first in a new wave of films (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) to poke fun at private detective clichés. It was even given 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 it worthwhile 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 specialist 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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