Friday, May 28, 2010

Paul Newman Is Harper

Ross Macdonald’s sardonic private eye Lew Archer came to the big screen for the first time in this 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 invalid Lauren Bacall’s (THE BIG SLEEP) missing husband. As these cases usually do, Harper’s investigation leads to a steady string of suspects, red herrings, and witnesses, including the missing man’s shimmying daughter Pamela Tiffin (STATE FAIR) in one of her best roles, callow pilot Robert Wagner (THE TOWERING INFERNO), lovesick attorney Arthur Hill (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), blowsy movie star Shelley Winters (LOLITA), her rat of a husband Robert Webber (S.O.B.), nightclub singer Julie Harris (THE HAUNTING), and colorful cult leader Strother Martin (SSSSS), whose scene was filmed at the same mountaintop temple used in THE STONE KILLER. Janet Leigh (PSYCHO) plays Harper’s estranged wife.

Goldman’s plot holds together pretty well, sending Harper from clue to clue and interview to interview with an occasional chase or smack on the head to break up the mystery. Though the story is typical MANNIX fare, 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 deliver tremendous entertainment. Lew Harper is one of Newman’s best characterizations, one he visited a decade later in THE DROWNING POOL.

HARPER isn’t a violent film, but when director Jack Smight (DAMNATION ALLEY) portrays violence, it’s fast and rough and packs a punch. Goldman and Smight economically use the opening titles to establish Harper’s likable but down-and-out detective persona with character bits like stumbling out of bed and digging through yesterday’s trash to reuse old coffee grinds (Burt Reynolds copied this sequence when he played a private detective in SHAMUS).


August West said...

Also, the movie stayed true to the original novel. Only exception was that they livened up the Harper character when compared to the Lew Archer in the novels. There's a lot more Newman in Harper than what Macdonald has in his PI novels. Great performances from all in the cast (Lew Baby!)

I really enjoyed this movie and the follow up "The Drowning Pool." (which also stayed true to the novel)

nyrdyv said...

I agree completely with August West: there was no way Paul Newman could play such a character without bringing such distinction to the movie.


Steven G. Willis

Thomas T. Simmons said...

Been a long time since I've seen this or Shamus, but I never put the two together. I'm going to have to revisit both of them now. Very cool.

Bruce said...

What you did not mention is that Ross Macdonald was thrilled to have Paul Newman play the role of Lew Archer. I know its Harper in the film.