As John Huston was preparing 1946’s The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s pulp fiction detective thriller, he was faced with a baffling question. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur, Sean Regan? Unable to find closure from his team of writers, Huston contacted the author himself who promptly informed the director that he really hadn’t a clue. Indeed, like Hitchcock and his MacGuffins, the murder in Chandler’s novel was incidental to the interplay between his fictional hero, Philip Marlowe and the nefarious characters met along the way. Chandler’s great strength as a writer was, is and will forever remain his crackling dialogue and ability to create fascinating situations in and of themselves. But from a purely narrative perspective Chandler tended to get lost in his stories. Not that it made any difference to his readers. In fact, perusing Chandler’s writing today one remains struck by its readability in spite of its lack of cohesion.
Chandler’s popularity was arguably not lost on author Ross Macdonald, who inherited the mantle from Chandler in the late 1960s and proved to be as cryptic in his crime writing prose as his predecessor. Director Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) is therefore The Big Sleep of its generation: a thoroughly convoluted story of abduction, murder and spousal betrayal. Like The Big Sleep, Harper is a movie of immense style; its stunning use of California locations spectacularly photographed by Conrad L. Hall, and its ensemble cast, featuring some of the best in the business, working overtime to throw the film’s protagonist, P.I. Lew Harper (Paul Newman) completely off his game. For most of its 121 minutes the audience is just as disoriented as our hero. The strength of the piece is not the ‘who’ in this who done it, but in the man himself: Lew Harper - much too tough for the fellas, while remaining way too sexy for the ladies.
By 1966 the detective/thriller, a main staple throughout the 1940s in American cinema, had lost much of its appeal with audiences. Indeed, nothing quite like Harper had been attempted on the screen for a very long while. All the more reason to admire Harper for its slick and stylish resurrection of this subgenre; with its hard-edged hero, flirtatious sex kittens and unscrupulous villains creating a milieu of danger and social deviants out for all they can get. Harper slinks across the screen with its modish trappings and hairpin plot twists like a pulp fiction masterpiece; soaking up the California sunshine even as it casts a spurious pall over everything.
William Goldman’s screenplay is an enigma. Who kidnapped millionaire Ralph Sampson gets buried beneath a much more fascinating series of unfortunate events. Our story opens on a typical day in the seemingly unglamorous life of Lew Harper, who awakens in his undershirt and boxers inside his rundown apartment/office, blinded by the mid-morning sun, and thereafter rescuing yesterday’s stained coffee filter from the garbage to brew a fresh pot. From this rather inauspicious debut we delve into the alternative universe of Bel Air; a moneyed playground where the ultra-rich laze around poolside all day without a care in the world. Except on this particular day the physically disabled egotist, Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) has discovered that her husband Ralph (whom we never see) has disappeared without a trace.
Elaine, who is not nearly as concerned as she ought to be, nevertheless finds it prudent to inform the family’s milquetoast attorney, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) about Ralph’s absence and Albert, in turn, pawns the assignment off on his close friend, Lew Harper. Harper wastes no time interviewing Elaine, who is both flirtatious yet strangely aloof, suspecting that Ralph is off with another woman. Harper then finds Ralph’s daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) frugging in a bikini by the pool while the missing millionaire’s private pilot, Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) casually looks on. Harper nicknames Alan ‘beauty’ because of his bronzed Apollo appeal. Miranda wants to be ‘Beauty’s girl’. If only he didn’t view her as just another rich little diversion to pass the time.
‘Beauty’ takes Miranda and Harper to Ralph’s private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel to search for clues. She feigns a seduction toward Harper that ends when Harper pretends he’d be willing to take advantage of her inside Ralph’s bedroom – a garish nightmare fancifully decorated in violent purple and cheaply golden astrological signs. Finding a glamorous photo of ex-movie star Fay Estabrook (Shelly Winters) among Ralph’s belongings Harper inquiries, “Whatever happened to her?” to which ‘Beauty’ laughingly declares, “She got fat!”
Pretending to be an adoring fan from Texas, Harper fakes an ‘accidental’ rendezvous with Fay at a nightclub. He quickly gets her drunk on flattery and cheap booze, taking Fay home where she promptly passes out. Searching her bungalow in haste, Harper intercepts a telephone call meant for Fay’s husband, Dwight Troy (Robert Webber) from Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) – a drug addicted lounge singer who forewarns that ‘someone’ (Harper) is skulking around their past. When Harper reveals that he is not Troy, Betty abruptly hangs up and Troy, who has been hiding in the bungalow all along, emerges to shoo Harper away at gunpoint.
Harper tracks Betty down at the beatnik nightclub where she sings and directly threatens to turn her in to narcotics after observing fresh needle marks on her arm. But Betty gets one of the bouncers, Puddler (Roy Jenson) to carpet-haul Harper into the alley behind the club instead. ‘Beauty’ intervenes, knocking Puddler unconscious with Harper’s gun. The two hurry back to Fay’s bungalow where Harper continues his search while ‘Beauty’ keeps watch outside. Hearing gunshots, Harper rushes outside and attempts to stop a truck that is speeding away from the property. He narrowly averts getting run over.
The next day Harper collects Miranda for a trip to the mountaintop temple that was bequeathed by Ralph to Claude (Strother Martin) presumably for the purposes of establishing a religious retreat. Harper isn’t fooled by Claude’s re-born piety, recognizing the familiar tire treads from the same truck left in the dust just outside the religious compound. Meanwhile, Elaine is sent a ransom note written in Ralph’s hand, asking her to cash in a half million dollars in bonds. Harper deduces that the kidnapper is an insider. With Beauty and Albert’s complicity he attempts a fake drop off at an abandoned oil refinery. Instead a struggle ensues and one of the kidnappers (Tom Steele) plummets to his death. Harper finds a matchbook inside the dead man’s coat pocket for a bar called ‘The Corner’ and plies his craft to pump the waitress and bartender for more information. He quickly learns that the deceased was Eddie Fraley – Betty’s brother who also made a long distance call to someone in Vegas three nights before using The Corner’s payphone.
Harper then identifies the same truck that tried to run him over parked just outside. Waiting for the driver, Harper tails the truck to Claude’s temple where he is ambushed by Claude and Troy who have been using it as a front to smuggle illegal immigrants. Taken to an abandoned shack to be further pummeled by Puddler, Harper instead manages to break free, kill Puddler and escape. He arrives at his estranged wife, Susan’s (Janet Leigh) bungalow a disheveled mess. Although bitter over their breakup, Susan takes pity on Harper. The two share an intimate night together and Harper – true to form – runs out on her the next morning.
On the pretext of needing to borrow a clean shirt, Harper confronts ‘Beauty’ about his involvement with Betty Fraley. The two are involved in Ralph’s kidnapping. ‘Beauty’ admits as much, but then draws a gun on Harper whom he intends to murder. Instead, Albert bursts in, shooting and killing ‘Beauty’. Harper races over to Betty’s home in Castle Beach where she is presently being tortured with cigarette burns applied to the bare soles of her feet by Troy as Claude and Fay look on. Betty confesses the whereabouts of the hidden ransom. Harper breaks through one of the window, killing Troy, knocking Claude unconscious and locking Fay inside a closet. Harper then rescues Betty, who tells him that Ralph is being held captive inside an abandoned oil tanker. Next, Harper telephones Albert to meet them at the shipyards.
All, however, does not go according to plan. Leaving Betty to wait in his car, Harper rushes into the tanker where he is promptly knocked unconscious by an unseen attacker. Arriving late to the scene, Albert revives Harper only to discover Ralph murdered inside one of the ship’s compartments. Harper learns that Betty has stolen his car. He and Albert make chase in Albert’s car along a narrow hillside. In her zeal to get away Betty loses control and plummets to her death. Harper telephones Elaine with the news of Ralph’s demise that seems to satisfy her immensely.
On the drive back to Elaine’s Harper confides in Albert that he suspects him of Ralph’s murder, citing that anyone involved in the heist would have searched his pockets for the key to the locker – something Harper still has on him. Albert confesses: he thought Ralph a despicable man who toyed with people for his own amusement. Pulling up to Elaine’s, Harper informs Albert that he intends to give her back the ransom money and that the only way Albert can hope to escape prosecution is by shooting him in the back. Albert draws his pistol on Harper as he slowly walks toward the front door. But at the last possible moment both men have a change of heart – presumably out of their mutual friendship.
Right from its opening, through its jigsaw puzzle plotting, until its morally obscure ending, Harper isn’t so much complex as it remains perplexing. Like The Big Sleep the pieces simply do not add up. Also like The Big Sleep, Harper proves an engaging riddle with no easy explanation. Both films are immeasurably blessed with strong leading men: Big Sleep’s Bogart vs. Harper’s Newman – an entirely different, though arguably just as ambiguous anti-hero. Both Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper know how to perpetuate the game on their suspects and women alike and each finds sadistic pleasure derived from their seedy profession.
But Paul Newman’s Lew Harper is a man of few words, so perfectly timed they elicit a concise snapshot that makes him immediately loveable. How much of Lew Harper’s appeal is based on our appreciation of Newman’s own persona is debatable, and in truth Newman has never entirely been able to eschew his own presence on the screen to ‘become’ any character. Like Cary Grant, he is ever present as himself - or a reasonable facsimile that we, the audience, assume is really what Paul Newman in the flesh, and out of the spotlight, must be like. However, this assessment of Newman – the star – does not negate the pleasure of watching him work. On the contrary, the observation of the man apart from his craft, or perhaps in spite of it, is a sheer delight. Newman is a star – period - and stars of his caliber are as rare among our contemporary ilk of celebrities as the ghost flowers from that golden vintage in Hollywood’s history when movies really were larger than life.
The other half of Harper’s enjoyment is quelled from the elegant roster of solid talents amassed to back Newman up. Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Shelly Winters, Robert Wagner, et al. provide a sort of Around the World in 80 Days ‘look who’s here’ experience, giving off the necessary ‘built-in’ feel good viewing. We look forward to what come next because of ‘who’ comes next in the lineup. The last great good fortune visited upon the film is Conrad Hall’s lush cinematography, as much a time capsule of swingin’ 60s California mod as it provides a lavishly appointed backdrop in all its high key lighting and interesting camera set ups. Claude E. Carpenter’s set decoration and Alfred Sweeney’s art direction take off as a gold coast travelogue. Because of its many assets, not only does the lack of cohesion in William Goldman’s screenplay not sink the picture; but it doesn’t make any difference at all. Harper’s ‘what me worry?’ approach to storytelling is mirrored in the character’s laissez faire attitudes toward his profession and life itself and in director Jack Smight’s casual aversion to clarifying the story any further. In the final analysis, Harper is a valiant successor to The Big Sleep in practically every way. Its success at the box office briefly resurrected the appeal of detective thrillers on the big screen. Predictably, none that followed it matched Harper as a class act.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive, though I would prefer the studio get around to giving us a new 1080p Blu-ray in 2013. I won’t hold my breath, however. What we have is a very fine looking DVD indeed; anamorphic widescreen with bold, refined colors. Flesh tones are extremely natural. Colors in general, but particularly reds and greens, pop. Fine detail is strongly represented and contrast levels look as they ought to: solid, deep blacks and very clean whites. Either the original film elements were in very good condition to begin with or Warner Home Video has done some serious restoration work on this title because everything is as it should be. Age related artifacts are all but nonexistent and film grain looks very good overall. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, dated but strong, with good spatial separation. Harper also gets an audio commentary. William Goldman isn’t all that comprehensive in his thoughts, yet it is nevertheless fascinating to hear what he has to say. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)