|Paul Newman as 'Harper,' private eye, posing by his shingle.|
Opinions vary about the ’66 neo-film noir, Harper. A number of film fans and critics think it’s a latter day detective classic. Others, like me, just find it a slickly entertaining Paul Newman picture.
|Paul Newman's gumshoe sure spends a lot of time in his car or on the phone.|
In the ‘60s, genre films were increasingly made with a mod wink at old-time Hollywood—in this case, detective movies. Harper was the brainchild of agent turned producer Elliot Kastner, whose greatest talent was pairing great stars with their cheesiest vehicles. This was perhaps Kastner’s best effort: take Ross Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, 1949’s The Moving Target, and riff on the ‘40s film noir era. How he got Harper off the ground is beyond me, when his only previous producer credit was Bus Riley’s Back in Town. Here’s Kastner’s IMDB resume of mostly rubbish: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0440990/?ref_=nmbio_bio_nm
Ironically, Harper now feels more dated than the original movies it tweaks. Harper’s trailer and poster paint him as modern and irresistible, but the promo material feel like they’re for an old Playboy magazine cover.
|The promo copy for 'Harper' tries for cool, but today just seems coy.|
There's plenty of elbowing the old gumshoe movies: Detective Lew Harper tells the barracuda wife of the missing millionaire that he's a “new type.” New, maybe—but not better. Newman led the way as the new breed of movie anti-hero, a trend I think didn’t age well, either. At 40, Paul as Harper often feels more like an over-aged frat boy, as opposed to the equally cynical, but more worldly-wise Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or other past film detectives.
|The first client visit for 'Harper' deliberately echoes Lauren Bacall's 'The Big Sleep,'|
with hubby Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe.
William Goldman's script has a number of zingers. His take on mid-60s California dreaming is more like a noir nightmare. It’s funny at times, but they’re all easy targets: new age religion, druggie jazz singers, crooked lawyers and dumb cops, rich people trying to buy their way out of trouble, etc. There's not a relatable one in the bunch—least of all Harper, who is crude with suspects, and also a juvenile jerk to his lovely ex-wife, as well. I realize I’m looking at a ‘60s movie through modern eyes, but this movie is even less evolved than the movies it’s mimicking from 20 years prior.
|Lauren Bacall is a catty client, whose snarky repartee is definitely not decaffeinated!|
You could say the film has a sexist view toward women, as they are all mercilessly mocked for their shortcomings, but the men don't fare much better. The nearly all-star cast is mostly typecast: Lauren Bacall as the missing rich man's wife, is a snarky bitch; Shelley Winters as a former movie star gone blowzy is treated with particular contempt by Harper; Pamela Tiffin is the young rich chick on the make. However, Julie Harris is oddly cast as the junkie jazz singer who is also treated rottenly by Harper.
|Shelley Winters played more latter-day blowsy broads than Joan Blondell!|
Bacall and Winters do their schtick very well. This is an era where Bacall's character is mocked as old and wrinkled at age 41, when Harper was filmed—and a whole year older than Paul Newman. Lauren looked quite timeless and chic as the rich super bitch, IMO. However, Shelley Winters is outrageous as the horny and drunk ex-star, and seems to be Harper’s walking punchline.
|Pamela Tiffin, as the rich client's sexy stepdaughter, isn't exactly Ann-Margret!|
Pamela Tiffin is all big hair and apple-cheeked, and dances quite badly on a pool board in a polka dot bikini. Tiffin mainly pouts and preens. Julie Harris sings a few bars of yet another Andre and Dore Previn movie theme about being lonely.
|Julie Harris is the junkie jazz singer who's too high-strung for torture games.|
As for the men, Robert Wagner plays his charming pretty boy bit for good-natured humor, his only real talent. At 35, RJ's on the edge of his beauty, which is what Newman calls him throughout. As the new age nutjob, Strother Martin has a field day, up in a mountain top home that looks like a low-rent version of Liz Taylor's pad in Boom!
|This was the last time Robert Wagner could get away w/playing the shallow pretty boy.|
The two best performances are Arthur Hill as the family lawyer who is in love with Tiffin’s rich girl. His lovelorn lawyer gets to go through some changes and plays them skillfully, with a tinge of melancholy. Janet Leigh as Harper’s rightfully exasperated ex-wife makes her few scenes count.
|Arthur Hill plays the most realistic character in 'Harper,' as Newman's old pal, |
who is now the family lawyer for the kidnapped man.
Harper runs just over two hours, too long for this fast-paced genre, and it drags in spots. The subplot involving Harper and his ex-wife is supposed to show how he's unable to give up a thankless job that doesn't love him back. From today's standpoint, Harper’s interactions with his ex make him look a dick, and I don't mean a private one. The scenes that are supposed to be funny aren’t and the one where Harper barges in on her late at night for a booty call and sympathy, only to ditch her the next morning, doesn’t age well.
|Newman's Harper lets his ex down not so easily after a late night visit. W/Janet Leigh.|
For anybody who feels that I’m too hard on Harper, I was expecting to love this movie, as mystery/suspense is one of my favorite genres. I also love films that depict an era or locale. This movie feels very ‘60s, but not in a good way, just a mainstream, dated way. One example: the hip music that plays in any scenes with young people sounds like Herb Alpert-style elevator music. And the young folks dancing hip looks like the Peanuts characters when they dance for joy.
|'Harper's' spoof of the cool kids is strictly Squares-ville!|
What about Harper himself, Paul Newman? At this point, Paul had loosened up as an actor, from his sometimes stiff ‘50s stardom. In his quiet, serious moments, Newman is on his way to the stellar star character actor he later became. Yet, his anti-hero stardom here came with his sometimes heavy-handed sense of humor. A stronger director other than journeyman Jack Smight would have reigned in Paul’s smirking, eye-rolling, lip-pursing, voice-mimicking “humor.”
|Paul Newman as Harper cracks himself up constantly, with his amused contempt |
for the crooked characters he encounters. It feels a bit sophomoric today.
William Goldman, considered one of the best screenwriters and go-to script doctor, scripted many crowd pleasers like this movie. He was a bit like Robert Towne in that regard. Yet, Towne wrote a modern film noir that actually had depth and resonates just as much today—1974’s Chinatown.
Harper’s finish was one of those mod freeze frame non-endings that made me want to throw something at the screen. Harper wasn’t new, but just a mixed bag.
|Paul Newman was 40 when 'Harper' was filmed.|
Check out my take on Paul Newman’s early forays into southern melodrama from 1958:
The Long, Hot Summer: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-long-hot-summer-long-but-not-so-hot.html
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2016/08/cat-on-hot-tin-roof-still-scorches-now.html
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB movie page.
Check it out & join! https://www.facebook.com/groups/178488909366865/
|This poster flies in the face of the legend that Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer was changed to 'Harper' because Paul Newman's then-hit movies started with an 'H.'|