Film Noir Review: Harper (1966)

“Hey, this detective work is really fun!”

Ross Macdonald occupies an odd space in the world of film noir. He started out as an expert hack with The Moving Target (1949), a novel that borrowed heavily from the pulp authors of yesteryear. 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. Macdonald eventually worked his way out from his influences, and developed a more unique approach on later novels like The Galton Case (1959) and Black Money (1966), but for moviegoers, he would seemingly carry the tag of “expert hack.”

This is largely due to the fact that when Hollywood came calling, they chose to adapt Macdonald’s first–and most derivative– novel. Paramount’s Elliot Kastner wanted to make a stylish throwback film, and he believed The Moving Target could do big business if it was modeled and executed just as The Big Sleep was twenty years earlier. Different, but the same. In many ways, what Kastner was doing laid the groundwork for what would become the modern day “reboot.” Yes, even in the 1960s, Hollywood was looking to recycle old ideas.

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 (nee Archer) acknowledges 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 winking statement made for the sake of the audience as much as it is for his client.

That client is millionaire Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), and she’s hired the weary Harper (Paul Newman) to locate her missing husband. Along the way, the missing husband leads to a real estate scheme, which in turn leads to complicit cops, and eventually to a murderous cult hidden atop the Hollywood Hills. How and why these pieces fit together is irrelevant, just as long as they keep Harper on the move. Director Jack Smight does a surprisingly good Howard Hawks impression here, balancing moments of violence with dialogue (“The bottom is loaded with nice people. Only cream and bastards rise to the top”) that matches Conrad Hall’s bubbly technicolor setting.

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 will occasionally hit a dramatic snag, like when Harper’s long-suffering wife Susan (Janet Leigh) shows up to bust his chops. The two are going through a divorce, and while their scenes together are well-acted, the film does nothing to show how this affects Harper or his handling of the case. Harper is at its best when it keeps things simple and focuses on the spectacle of detecting. Anytime you see Los Angeles scenery or Pamela Tiffin in a bikini, rest assured that good times are ahead.

The other performances in Harper are unabashedly hammy. Bacall practically spits venom as Sampson, a 180 degree turn from her role in The Big Sleep (her scenes with Harper call to mind the latter’s opener 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 supplements the film’s sex appeal as Miranda Sampson, a worthy successor to Sleep‘s Carmen Sternwood. These party girls would’ve had quite the time bewildering men 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).

The fun that Paul Newman has playing Harper is infectious. He’s in peak movie star mode here, preening with enough swagger to topple Kastner’s initial choice, Frank Sinatra, who would’ve seemed archaic by comparison. Newman lends weight to the sillier moments, levity to the serious ones, and a general air of insolence (“I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test.”) that’s prevalent in any great screen detective. Fans of the actor’s more popular roles (Hud, Cool Hand Luke) are in for a treat.

Harper surpassed expectations when it premiered in 1966, not only proving a critical and commercial hit, but the first in a new wave of films (Tony Rome, P.J., Lady In Cement, Marlowe) that poked fun at detective clichés. It was even given a sequel, The Drowning Pool, nine years later, which is a genre 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.”

Harper’s reliance on the past has kept it from becoming a masterpiece on the level of its predecessors, but its spry mood and stellar cast are still enough to make it worthwhile viewing. “This detective work is really fun!” quips Wagner’s character at one point, and in the often bleak world 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.


–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.

This entry was posted in Film Noir Review, Posts by Danilo Castro. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses 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.

  2. CaitlynD says:

    “How and why these pieces fit together is irrelevant, just as long as they keep Harper on the move.” I think this sentence is the entire film in a nutshell. I did not know if I was going to like this film even given the cast. We all know how re-makes can be. It was thrilling to watch, even though I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and how it all fit together. None of Newman’s other roles are quite like this one, and it really is a treat.

  3. David Hollingsworth says:

    I have seen a few scenes from this film, and I really want to see the entire film. Plus, any film with Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall and Shelley Winters in the same production is begging to be watched. The plot may sound a little cliched, but sometimes its best to just leave your brain at the door and enjoy the show.

  4. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    I remember this film! I was still a teenager but a fan of Ross Macdonald’s Miles Archer novels. Since what I liked about Archer was his world-weariness and basic compassion I was confused by Newman’s Harper, who was too well-dressed and sophisticated for my taste. My final take-away from the Archer books came in a later book where another character wants Archer to get justice for him, and Archer replies something like “I no longer look for justice, but only hope for mercy.” Me too.

  5. Javier Valverde says:

    Amazing article about the movie Harper (1966). I’ve heard it’s a legendary film and from reading the article, I now know why. Thank you to Danilo Castro for bringing insight into this movie. I’ve always liked Paul Newman so hopefully I’ll see this movie one day

  6. Great read. I’ve never seen this one before – I didn’t realize it was a film noir. I wouldn’t necessarily think of Paul Newman being in a film noir film. I need to check this out now – sounds pretty good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.