Jack Smight directs and William Goldman adapts the Ross Macdonald novel The Moving Target, and Paul Newman stars as Los Angeles private eye Lew Harper (changed from Archer in the book; Newman had good luck with “H” movie titles). Harper’s hired by the crippled Mrs. Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing (kidnapped, it turns out) husband. She’s not particularly attached to or worried about getting him back alive since her goal is to outlive him and enjoy his fortune. Bacall is excellent as this cold and witchy dame with no love for her swinging stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), who parties poolside with her friend, pilot and dreamy layabout Allan (Robert Wagner).
Newman is cool, charming, resourceful and sardonic, ready (even overdoes it a bit) with dramatic scoffs, head shaking or disbelieving chuckles at the parade of ridiculously shallow, shady and colourful characters involved in this mystery (the milder predecessor of Joaquin Phoenix’s cartoonish reactions to the cast of weirdos in Inherent Vice). Shelley Winters is a drunken, overweight, washed-up former bombshell who digs into heaping platters and into Harper with the same gusto. He impresses her by pretending to be an ardent fan but fails to sell the same lie to her husband (Robert Webber) a terrifying gentleman who loves to describe the “gorgeously unendurable” torture he’s about to inflict on his victims. One of those unlucky folks is the junkie ex-con lounge singer played by Julie Harris, who’s hidden the ransom money and has a passionate romance with Wagner.
Janet Leigh plays Harper’s weary wife and with the couple on the verge of divorce Harper reverts to his habit of making prank calls in the middle the night, which she amusingly recognizes and turns back on him. Their lawyer (Arthur Hill) is Harper’s longtime buddy who got him the Sampson gig, mostly because he has a raging and creepy crush on Miranda.
The characters zigzag into each others’ paths and all over the nice California locations, like the modern hilltop home that’s headquarters for Strother Martin’s phoney New Age cult retreat (actually a front for an illegal immigration racket). The opening scenes, with Newman waking up in his office and starting his day digging old coffee grounds out of the trash (see also: Shamus with Burt Reynolds), efficiently show you what he’s all about, and the rest of the film fills you in on just how, and how far down, he fell from the grand lawman dreams he started with. The culprit is easy to guess, but that doesn’t spoil anything, since the fun comes from Newman’s interactions with this wacky group, and the outcome proves he had good reason to be so cynical.