The DVD I got a hold of for the 1966 film “Harper” features an introduction by TCM’s resident host Robert Osbourne. During this intro he dispenses several bits of trivia about the film, including the fact that Frank Sinatra was originally lined up to play the lead in the film, which was based on the novel The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald. When Sinatra bowed out and Paul Newman was brought on, Osbourne explains that the star, with the infinite wisdom that only Hollywood celebrity types have, insisted on a few changes. First he felt that the title should be changed to the name of the lead character…and second, that the character’s named should be changed to something that began with the letter “H.” It seems that Newman had a good track record with films that began with “H”…”Hud” and “The Hustler.” Therefore, Lew Archer, as he is called in the book, was changed to Lew Harper. These are the kind of stories that film fans relish in, but at the same time you hope that there couldn’t possibly be a human being that thought their good fortunes rested upon the whims of the all powerful 8th letter of the alphabet.
As if a title beginning in “H” wasn’t enough, Newman had some other things working in his favor on this one. Namely screenwriter William Goldman. Goldman has been involved in tons of films since the 60’s. He wrote films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Princess Bride” (which was based on his novel), “All the President’s Men,” and has done a bunch of uncredited script rewrites…including recent films like “Zombieland.” But “Harper” was just his second screenplay.
In the film, private detective Lew Archer…uh, Harper, is hired by a Mrs. Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her husband who has been missing for a few days. She really could care less about finding him. She openly admits that she is simply trying to outlive her wealthy husband at this point. Her hiring of Harper is basically just for show, suggested by her attorney, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), who is an old buddy of Harper. Graves also happens to be infatuated with Mrs. Sampson’s step-daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin…remember her from “For Those Who Think Young?”), who is half his age. She’d rather spend her time with her father’s pilot, Allan (Robert Wagner), or just about any other promising looking male…including Harper.
The story gets complicated as Harper’s investigation leads him to a variety of strange characters including a plumped up former movie starlet (played by Shelley Winters), a broke down lounge singer, and a religious fanatic who lives in a homemade mountaintop temple and smuggles Mexican laborers into the country in his spare time. I admit, I get a bit lost sometime with winding twisting detective stories like this. I have a simple mind…stuff like “we’ve got to destroy the Death Star” is about all my brain can handle. But even if I have to rewind every now and then, I still enjoy detective stories. This one is essentially a 30’s or 40’s style detective yarn set in the 60’s. Makes sense since the original novel was written in 1949.
The new setting works, but more could’ve been done to make Harper the classic sort of down-on-his-luck detective. Though the opening of the film tries to establish Harper as being a rough and dirty P.I. who is not beneath pulling coffee grounds out of the trash in order to brew a fresh cup, that image doesn’t last. Newman is a bit too smooth and handsome for his own good, he loses the grittiness the character needs rather quickly. Still, I enjoyed Newman’s peformance. Shelly Winters also does a great job with a truly obnoxious character, and Pamela Tiffin is surprisingly enjoyable too. A big improvement over her role in “For Those Who Think Young.” Lauren Bacall, however, seems to just kind of be there, not really doing much with her role. Likewise, there’s nothing exciting about Janet Leigh’s performance in the unnecessary role of Harper’s ex-wife. Sorry to go here, but she looks about 10 years older than Newman in this film, though he was actually just 2 years her senior. And I don’t mean to say that she looks bad, she’s beautiful…she just doesn’t seem to go with Newman. Maybe that’s just further example of how Newman is way too pretty for a grizzled P.I.
But, if you ask me, Goldman’s script is the real star of the show. My only real complaint with the script is it’s non-ending. It’s one of those endings that the filmmakers probably though was unique, but really just leaves the audience thinking, “well, they must have run out of ideas.” Still, the rest of the script is clever and funny…with plenty of “H” words to make Mr. Newman happy.