Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

“What kind of a weirdo is Sampson?”

Private detective Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is hired by the wife (Lauren Bacall) of an oil tycoon to locate her missing husband “Sampson”, with help from Sampson’s grown daughter (Pamela Tiffin) and Tiffin’s hunky boyfriend (Robert Wagner). During his search across Los Angeles, Harper meets up with Bacall’s lawyer (Arthur Hill), a boozy ex-starlet (Shelley Winters) and her protective husband (Robert Webber), a drug-addicted jazz pianist (Julie Harris), a kooky cult leader (Strother Martin), and even his own estranged wife (Janet Leigh).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Janet Leigh Films
  • Julie Harris Films
  • Lauren Bacall Films
  • Los Angeles
  • Paul Newman Films
  • Robert Wagner Films
  • Search
  • Shelley Winters Films

This adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s detective novel The Moving Target (1949) featured Paul Newman starring in his third of four single-word-titled films starting with the letter H — after [The] Hustler (1961) and Hud (1964) and before Hombre (1967). (This is notable only because Newman requested that his character be renamed from Lew Archer to Lew Harper to continue the trend.)

It’s solidly directed by Jack Smight, with fine Technicolor cinematography by Conrad Hall, good use of diverse locales across Los Angeles, and an ensemble array of big-name actors making an impression in relatively small parts (especially Winters and Harris). There are plenty of twists and turns — as well as unexpected character revelations — and Newman gets into just about as much trouble as you might imagine given the amount of money at stake.

I haven’t read any of the Lew Archer novels, but according to Wikipedia’s article, Archer “is largely a cipher, rarely described”, thus leaving him open to interpretation by Newman, who portrays him as a smooth operator — he swiftly turns himself into whoever people assume he is — but also a foolish husband who’s unable to keep things straight with his own (dissatisfied and fed up) wife.

In his review of the film for The New York Times — comparing it to hard-boiled private eye flicks of the 1940s — Bosley Crowther wrote:

“… something intangible is missing, and that something is the curious kind of ‘cool’ that Mr. Bogart used to establish in these tersely detached detective roles. Mr. Newman is an interesting actor. He can be cynical, casual, cruel and can convey an air of personal anguish that is appropriate to his non-committed role. But he is too fresh, too ruggedly good looking to be consistent as the sort of beat-up slob that his shady detective is intended to be and as Mr. Bogart used to be.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with Crowther’s specific complaint (does Archer need to be a “beat-up slob”?), I’ll admit to not quite finding Newman appropriate in the role — primarily because he’s too easily amused and a bit childish; it’s by sheer luck (and perhaps even some James Bond-ian movie-land luck) that he manages to slip away with his life time and again.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Conrad Hall’s cinematography
  • Fine supporting performances

  • Good use of authentic locales around Southern California
  • Impressive sets
  • William Goldman’s script:

    Harper says to a cop: “I used to be a sheriff — until I passed my literacy test.”

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely recommended for one-time viewing.


2 thoughts on “Harper (1966)

  1. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    I also haven’t read a Lew Archer novel, but found Newman and the story extremely engaging. I think the noir setting, story and characters work very well in the 1960s LA setting, surprisingly.

    Arguably one of the best of the ’60s neo-noirs. The sequel The Drowning Pool (1976) isn’t quite as good but is still a decent little yarn.

    Harper is very good but not really a must see in any kind of cinematically historical sense.

  2. Not must-see.

    There are certainly much-better P.I. films; Newman’s character pales against the likes of Philip Marlowe. (Even Elliott Gould’s revisionist take on Marlowe – by way of Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ – is better.)

    Tiffin is cute; Harris plays the most unconvincing addict I’ve ever seen; Winters gets a laugh for farting.

    The ending is WTF-dumb.

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