August 06, 2009


Harper (1966) is a self-consciously chic, sophisticated and cool detective thriller starring Paul Newman as a private eye named Lew Harper. Adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, Harper is probably the best pure-detective-thriller of the 1960s (although Bullitt starring Steve McQueen is up there, too).

I have written before about film noir, which is possibly my favorite genre. Harper was part of the shift in detective movies and noir that took place in the 60's and 70's where a sort of deconstruction of the genre emerged. While film noir has always been cynical, I think the films became increasingly a comment on themselves. These men eat, drink and sleep their work. Somehow the glamour has been lost amidst the unkempt studio apartment and the worn-out convertible, a relic of the glory days but still a relic. Newman's character is a typical Hollywood private eye: a loner, compelled to figure out the case before him. He's hired to track down cold-hearted Lauren Bacall's missing millionaire-husband.

Bacall, of course, starred as Humphrey Bogart's cunning, brassy love interest in 1946's The Big Sleep. She comes full circle with the genre in Harper, fulfilling the part of the catalyst, the one who hires the detective, giving us the backstory on the case. Bacall's character is hardly at her wit's end with grief about her missing husband. "I only intend to outlive him," she assures Harper. "I only want to see him in his grave." And then, trying to narrate Harper's thoughts for him, she concludes: "What a terrible thing to say." Harper responds, "People in love will say anything."
That's how Harper addresses the world. He has a quip for every circumstance, taking his punches with a grin and a stubborn--sometimes futile--inability to quit. This of course mirrors several of Newman's other movie roles, most notably the title character in 1967's Cool Hand Luke and Fast Eddie Felson in 1961's The Hustler.

The look and feel of Harper is vital to the film's success. Conrad Hall--one of the most respected American cinematographers--does an impressive job of capturing the grandeur of the film's beautiful external California locations.

He also manages to capture the feel of 1960's swing culture. A good portion of the film takes place in bars and night clubs, where the movie's noirish roots meld with the zeitgeist of free love and aimlessness that pervaded the movies during the 60s.

Amidst all the offhand comments and the shootings and the innuendos you will find a somewhat distant but incredibly sad love story between Lew and his estranged wife, Susan (Janet Leigh).

Early in the film, Lew and Susan share an exchange by telephone where Lew tries to once again stall their divorce procedures, though it's unclear why exactly. Susan ends the conversation assuring Lew "I don't love you anymore. And you can get shot in some stinking alley and I'll be a little sorry, sure, but that's it. Just a little sorry." Later on, Lew comes knocking on Susan's door after a particularly rough fight with one of the bad guys, looking for someone to take care of him. There is a moment of hope that their relationship will not end. But Lew's compulsion soon returns--to finish the case. A compulsion that seems to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the world. A moral mission that excludes real human interaction.

Directed by Jack Smight. Also starring Julie Harris, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Shelley Winters, Robert Webber, Strother Martin and Harold Gould. Followed by The Drowning Pool (1975), which paired Newman with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in a lesser but still entertaining sequel.

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