Paul Newman IS Harper, a cynical private eye in the best tradition of Bogart. He even has Bogie's Baby (Lauren Bacall) hiring him to find her missing husband, getting involved along the way with an assortment of unsavory characters and an illegal-alien smuggling ring.
Paul Newman ... Lew Harper
Lauren Bacall ... Elaine Sampson
Julie Harris ... Betty Fraley
Arthur Hill ... Albert Graves
Janet Leigh ... Susan Harper
Pamela Tiffin ... Miranda Sampson
Robert Wagner ... Allan Taggert
Robert Webber ... Dwight Troy
Shelley Winters ... Fay Estabrook
Harold Gould ... Sheriff Spanner
Roy Jenson ... Puddler
Strother Martin ... Claude
Martin West ... Deputy Sheriff
Jacqueline deWit ... Mrs. Kronberg
While perhaps not as taut as "The Maltese Falcon", but just as intricate as "Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential", "Harper" is an under-acknowledged gem of a film that's as cool as it's leading man. It's with this film that I began to get a better appreciation of Paul Newman, easily one of the most versatile leading men Hollywood has ever produced. Here, he plays Harper as something of a SOB, always looking at the paycheck as his top priority. Not that the pond he has to swim in is any better; a frigid woman client, a hot-to-trot teen daughter, a duplicitous servant, an attorney who's the closest thing to a friend Harper has, a washed-up nightclub singer, her sinister, Texan husband, and a cult leader aren't exactly what one would call charming dinner company. It also doesn't help that the guy Harper's trying to find isn't even liked by the wife who hired him (thanks to the under-appreciated fire and spirit of Lauren "Betty" Bacall, one of the true originals) or anybody else. The only thing they like is his money.
Like a good boxer, the plot bobs and weaves, never letting the audience know when the next surprise is coming until it's too late. While Chandler is cited when talking about this film, it also makes me think of Hammett's many, many tales of the Continental Op. Not everybody always tells the truth, not everything is what it seems, and the best laid plans of mice and men (to paraphrase Bobby Burns) wind up falling through. Some people may not have the patience for this film in our razzle-dazzle, in-your-face age of entertainment, but for those who prefer their movies with a soft, subtle touch, this is one for you.
A highly successful film in it's own right, HARPER is no less considered to be controversial by fans of Ross Macdonald's mystery series (from which this film is based). Not only was Macdonald's detective hero's name changed from "Lew Archer" to "Lew Harper" (long-rumored to be because Newman felt that "H" was his lucky letter after 1961's THE HUSTLER and 1963's HUD), but many fans also felt the film simply did not capture the true feeling of the series of detective books that they had come to love. This is a shame because, when taken on its own terms, HARPER is a whole lot of fun. Either way, the film was a major hit at the box office, so this remains the major exposure of Macdonald's universe for the majority of the public.
I have never read Macdonald's Archer books so I cannot compare them to this picture, but I can say that this film's intelligent, quick-witted take on the detective makes this perfect vehicle for Paul Newman's screen personae. The supporting cast is absolutely star-studded, with Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, Lauren Bacall, and Robert Webber all perfectly type-cast, and Janet Leigh turning a potentially thankless role into a small little gem. Only Julie Harris (who is woefully miscast) and Pamela Tiffin (who seems inexperienced) really miss the boat here. The script by William Goldman has plenty of good twists and turns, and director Jack Smight indulges just enough in the light kitsch tone without undermining the film's tension.
It ought to have everything going for it. What a cast! And they're all good -- with Paul Newman's Lou Harper at the top of his game, and, somewhere closer to her usual norm, Pamela Tiffen. Newman's performance is among his best. He's a gum-chewing cynical PI who's determined the find the truth behind the disappearance of millionaire Sampson. He has all the necessary tics, nudges, winks, and shrugs. And he registers exquisite pain when somebody clobbers him. There is, for instance, a scene in which a big thug named Puddler sucker punches Newman in a bar, then takes him out back and begins to deliver one or two heavy, deliberately placed body blows. R. J. Wagner sneaks up on Puddler, knocks him out, then gaily begins to help Newman walk back to his car. But Newman groans and leans against the wall, puffing and holding his belly, and begs Wagner, "Wait a minute." A less imaginative actor would have had the character shake his head a few times to clear it, then stride off snapping out orders.
Shelly Winters is equally good in a comic role as an overripe over-the-hill ex-movie star and alcoholic. I can't imagine anyone doing better than Winters when she's berating a hotel orchestra for not playing La Cucaracha, shouting that they can't be REAL "Mescins" or they'd have their guitars, and then stumbling off the platform. Shelly Winters is often nailed for spoiling the pictures she's in but I'm not sure why. Her whining evokes both irritation and pathos. She's brought some pizazz to some other films she's been in too. Ham should always be considered a part of any proper buffet.
So why doesn't the picture come together? Why is the sum less than its parts. Where is the subtrahend? It has a flattish made-for-TV quality. Settings are all comfortably upscale, as in an episode of "Colombo." The L.A. locations seem to be carefully chosen but because of the photography or Mandel's below-average score, they have little impact. Compare "Chinatown" or "Farewell My Lovely." William Goldman's script tries for the telling wisecrack ("Only cream and bastards rise") but there aren't enough of them and they're mostly cracks without wit. The best repartee is between Lauren Bacall and Pamela Tiffen, two women who hate one another and delight in mutual insults. "I love your wrinkles. I revel in them." Still, Goldman's script does manage to hold together a plot that is bilaterally symmetrical. On the one hand, Newman is hired to rescue the kidnapped millionaire Samson and save the half million paid for his return. On the other hand Newman stumbles into an unrelated plot having to do with the smuggling of illegal aliens. The two stories have absolutely nothing to do with one another until more than halfway through the film when Newman alerts one gang to the operations of the other. It's all pretty easy to get lost in, especially when so many disparate characters are involved.
The plot lacks an engine too. I didn't believe for a moment that Newman was genuinely dedicated to his craft, that it was a point of pride with him to "crack this thing," as he puts it. Humphrey Bogart was a cynical, wisecracking PI in "The Maltese Falcon" but what was driving him, as we discover at the end of the film, was the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. Certainly, concern about the fate of the kidnapped rich guy isn't much of a motive. We never even meet him and everybody hates him anyway.
What drives Newman's character? Nothing that we can discover. His marriage is a disaster, he lives in his office, he drives a beat-up car, he has practically no friends. In fact, when you come right down to it, Newman is not a particularly admirable guy in this film. He has a nasty habit of using people. He gets Winters' weak character drunk and then insults her as she lies passed out. He charms some information out of a good-natured barmaid with his New York accent and, when he's finished with her, blows her off by asking directly, "Where's the boss?", and her face falls with the realization that she's been had. He deliberately lies to his emotionally vulnerable but estranged wife, from whom he gets some sympathy and a night in bed before leaving her flat the next morning. He, in turn, has no sympathy for anyone else.
And then there's the end of the film, a freeze frame that leaves us wondering whether Newman will turn his only friend Arthur Hill over to the police or whether Hill will shoot to stop him. The technique may be an integral part of the movie, as it is in "The Four Hundred Blows," in which a delinquent child is frozen while looking at the camera, as if waiting for the audience to judge him. Or it may, as in this case, be an arbitrary gesture, a way of ending a movie that nobody could think of a good ending for. You know, though, having said that, I still prefer an ending like this to the phenomenal shootouts that have since become so commonplace.
# The character Lew Harper is based on novelist Ross Macdonald's character Lew Archer. The name was changed for the film supposedly because Paul Newman had recently enjoyed success with Hud (1963) and the producers wanted the movie's title to begin with "H". Also, the Macdonald estate did not want the name "Archer" used in the movie.
# Average Shot Length = ~8.5 seconds. Median Shot Length = ~7.9 seconds.
# The opening credits sequence (where Harper makes himself a terrible cup of coffee, among other things) was written and shot after the first cut of the film had already been delivered to the studio.