Ross Macdonald’s sardonic private eye Lew Archer came to the big screen for the first time in 1966's HARPER, an entertaining romp penned by William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), who won an Edgar Award for the year’s best movie mystery. Paul Newman is at his most charming as gum-chomping Lew Harper, the character renamed, the story goes, because Newman was having a streak of good luck at the box office with “H” movies like HUD and THE HUSTLER. Goldman claims the name was changed because producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin bought the rights to Macdonald’s novel, but not the character of Archer.
Based on Macdonald’s 1949 novel THE MOVING TARGET, HARPER finds the titular dick on the trail of wealthy Elaine Sampson’s (Lauren Bacall) missing husband. As these cases usually do, Harper’s investigation leads him to a steady string of suspects and witnesses, including the missing man’s shimmying daughter Miranda (lovely Pamela Tiffin), callow pilot Allan Taggart (grinning Robert Wagner), lovesick attorney Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), blowsy movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), her husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), nightclub singer Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), and colorful cult leader Claude (Strother Martin).
The plot holds together pretty well, though it just as easily could have been a MANNIX episode (Harper takes as much physical abuse as Mannix). What makes HARPER stand about typical TV fare are Goldman’s slick dialogue (Bacall: “L.A. is the big league for religious nuts.” Newman: “That’s ‘cause there’s nothin’ to do at night.”) and Newman’s sly hamming, which deliver tremendous entertainment. It’s isn’t a violent film per se, but when director Jack Smight (DAMNATION ALLEY) portrays violence, it’s fast and rough and packs a punch.
HARPER uses its opening titles to establish Harper’s likable persona with nice character bits like stumbling out of bed and digging through yesterday’s trash to reuse old coffee grinds. Newman did it so well that Burt Reynolds virtually copied this sequence in 1973 when he played a private detective in SHAMUS, which even swiped the coffee grounds bit.
Newman played Lew Harper again nine years later in the inferior THE DROWNING POOL, but it’s also fun to imagine him as a slightly over-the-hill Harper in 1998’s TWILIGHT, an underrated all-star mystery in which he played a beaten-down P.I. with a bum leg.