Ross Macdonald’s Cool Cat detective — originally Lew Archer — comes alive in Jack Smight’s smart SoCal kidnapping mystery, thanks to a charismatic Paul Newman and a hot cast of bright, smart actors. It’s the first screenplay sale for the celebrated William Goldman, and the crisp cinematography by ace cameraman Conrad Hall doesn’t hurt either.
Warner Archive Collection
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Harold Gould, Roy Jenson, Strother Martin, Martin West, Jacqueline deWit.
Cinematography Conrad Hall
Art Direction Alfred Sweeney
Film Editor Stefan Arnsten
Original Music Johnny Mandel
Written by William Goldman from The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
Produced by Jerry Gershwin, Elliott Kastner
Directed by Jack Smight
Gumshoe detective movies (as opposed to police movies about detectives) suffered a dip in the 1960s, even as the legacy of Humphrey Bogart took a big upswing. TV had the genre all but locked up, as witnessed by 1969’s feature film Marlowe. James Garner led an excellent cast in an amusing thriller that even had space for the newcomer Bruce Lee, yet the mass audience didn’t bite.
But Paul Newman did have a gumshoe hit, back in 1966. By that year he was as big a star as they get, one of the best-looking, dependably versatile movie stars around. Newman’s acting had improved beyond accusations of by-the-book mannerisms, and behind the blue eyes was a personality that could become many credible types, even an unlikable heel in Hud.
Harper is a fun update of the 1940s pulp style as seen through the popular detective novels of Ross Macdonald. It’s also the first script by writer William Goldman, who discussed it at length in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. As with much of Goldman’s later work, it’s a jokey and entertaining audience charmer. Newman’s detective hero is given clever dialogue that’s neither hardboiled parody nor sarcasm for its own sake — this Lew Harper is a slightly misanthropic wise guy who hides his values behind a thick veneer of ‘in crowd’ attitude. Goldman later came down with a serious case of the Cutes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in Harper the poles of intrigue and crowd-pleasing humor are in balance. His eccentric, ‘what the hell?’ ending is debatable: is it a comment on the absurdity of detective-criminal relations, or another joke joshing the self-seriousness of pulp fiction?
Millionaire Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) hires P.I. Lew Harper (Newman) to find her husband, who may have been kidnapped. Lew haunts the L.A. smart set and runs into a particularly colorful set of suspects. Club singer and drug addict Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) may be connected with gambler Dwight Troy (Robert Webber) and maybe even floozy ex-starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters) in a flaky kidnap plot. Helping and hindering Harper are Sampson’s oversexed stepdaughter Miranda Sampson (Pamela Tiffin), his lawyer Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), and his personal pilot Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner). Meanwhile Harper is trying to hang onto his estranged wife Susan (Janet Leigh) — by neglecting to show up to sign the divorce papers.
Paul Newman was so big of a star at this time, that any movie he was in could have its pick of actors. Harper fills each character slot with an excellent talent choice. Newman’s own role is also a perfect fit, as Lew Harper is unimpressed by pretension and wealth and greets every new situation with a good-natured, slightly-hip resignation. The classic opening has all the usual elements: poor detective drifts into fabulous mansion (in fictional Santa Theresa, 40 miles outside of L.A.) and meets an eccentric client who doesn’t even try to hide her revulsion for her alcoholic, wandering husband. Lew’s not in control of the case and has no illusions that the greedy Elaine wants Sampson found, but he certainly sees himself as a man with a worthy mission. It doesn’t matter that in thriller terms his efforts end in failure … we’re sold on this dogged P.I. hero.
William Goldman keeps the characterizations sharp and the plot on track. Robert Wagner seems an okay dude, a rich man’s ‘substitute son,’ as in The Big Sleep. But rich men’s pilots tend not to be good guys in movies like this — see Buzz Kulik’s Warning Shot. Shelley Winters’ gross broad act becomes a welcome diversion when she shows a delightful willingness to be the butt of ‘fat’ jokes. Pamela Tiffin is an appropriately flaky Young Thing, especially when introduced go-go dancing on a pool’s diving board, to music from an ancient Muntz 4-Track Tape Player! (crazy collectors: I have one in my garage). Robert Webber and Roy Jenson are bad guys dealing with ‘spiritual guru’ Strother Martin, who runs a freaked out hilltop temple on land donated by the eccentric missing millionaire. Fans of Lauren Bacall and Julie Harris will be happy, as both have brief but strong roles. Bacall’s Elaine appears to have crippled herself to avoid intimacy with her husband, and Julie Harris makes a particularly convincing torture victim. Quiet Arthur Hill (The Andromeda Strain) benefits from careful direction. He’s sympathetic as a middle-aged lawyer trying to convince himself that he can appeal to a 20 year-old nymphet.
Goldman reserves a sassy attitude for every character not sharing Lew Harper’s halo of hipster arrogance. Although his character is an old buddy, Arthur Hill is used as the butt of ‘square’ jokes, and ridiculed for being obsessed with the hip-swinging Tiffin. In turn Tiffin is criticized as being a fake tease: when Harper suddenly responds to her come-hither overtures, she beats a fast retreat. Jack Smight’s good direction can’t overcome some pre-hippie smugness. The go-go dancers in the rock clubs are okay, but one such scene is introduced with a joke aimed at long-haired men: “gee, we can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.” Guys my age wish we had a dollar for every time somebody made that observation, innocent or malicious. It’s an un-cool detail in what is really quite an old-fashioned show.
Harper moves quickly, from chase scenes to funny character situations to perhaps one-too-many klunks on the head for Lew Harper. Goldman & Smight take very few missteps along the way. Martin West’s dummy deputy is unnecessary and a key scene in which Harper torments Robert Wagner is pretty weak. As it is, almost everyone (surprise) turns out to be something other than they appear, which makes us forgive Lew for seeking solace with his fed-up missus Janet Leigh. He shows up at her doorstep wounded and needy and cruelly allows her to think he’s returned for good.
Familiar Los Angeles locations represent both L.A. and the fictional Santa Theresa, which will likely confuse locals. After being told that Harper is headed for L.A. we are shown a glimpse of Santa Monica, only to find that he hasn’t left the other town yet. Other than those stumbles the film offers a slick look at Los Angeles in the middle ’60s. A Malibu spur road leads Harper past a glancing view of the atomic house from Kiss Me Deadly, now with newer buildings next to it. I wonder if anybody associated with Harper was even aware of that older picture — beyond Strother Martin, who had a small role in it. The houses would later be torn down, as the Coast Authority reclaimed public lands. Remember the impressive beach house in 1941? Sometime in the 1970s, that entire surfside neighborhood had been bought back by the state and razed, leaving convenient ‘pads’ on which the film’s false buildings could be constructed. We were told that one of the beach houses had belonged to Vincent Price.
The Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray of Harper really brings out the snap in Conrad Hall’s sharp Panavision photography. Hall disguises the studio sets and makes the most of real locations, especially huge night views of industrial sites. The only scenes that date the picture are the rear-projected car interiors. Johnny Mandel’s jazzy score is fine until he has to come up with club music, at which point some of the themes sound thin, like Tijuana Brass pop tunes. But Julie Harris does a fine job singing on stage.
Respected TV director Jack Smight had a short string of theatrical hits, including a success that’s not one of his best, The Illustrated Man. The lumpy Paul Newman comedy The Secret War of Harry Frigg didn’t help his stature with the actor, and his big screen career was curbed for a time by the double flop-whammy of Rabbit, Run and the rather daring, impressive The Traveling Executioner. Smight isn’t often remembered for his imaginative 1973 TV Movie Frankenstein: The True Story, but he ought to be.
The William Goldman commentary is recycled from the old 2006 DVD; it’s still a good listen. Goldman comes up with a lot of specific details and star reminiscences to go along with his usual screenwriting lessons to live by, such as ‘protect the star,’ and ‘real realism is often unbelievably illogical.’ We agree with Goldman that having Lew Harper shamefully re-use soggy coffee grounds was a great way to establish the detective’s slightly seedy lifestyle. But we have to be discerning with Goldman too. He mentions salting the notion that Julie Harris’ character can hot-wire a car, and calls it good writing. It mostly tips us that Harris will soon hot-wire a car, and that Goldman is pre-plugging holes in a leaky, over-complicated plot!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: William Goldman commentary, trailier
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 12, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson