Harper (1966)


 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.


8 thoughts on “Harper (1966)”

  1. Never believed that they changed the PI’s name cuz of a “good luck” thing. Rather, “Paul Newman IS Archer” put one in mind of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest.

    1. 🙂 true, his good run of H movies made that story stick. I love how this character goes with Newman through his career with Drowning Pool and then the variation in Twilight.

  2. I do love this flick. It’s so gloriously 1960s, and Newman does the hard-boiled cop update so well. I particularly love that he chews gum instead of smoking. Bacall is a great addition to make clear this is a noir homage.

    1. She was so good here, and I mean everyone was, they all got something juicy and that’s always what makes a mystery something more. Fun to trace the shamus story through the eras and see the surface changes on the same “bones.”

    1. Yes finally! and I liked it, he made a cool P.I. surrounded by oddballs 🙂 Great cast, all got something fun to play, nice update to the classic noir story.

  3. I liked it pretty well when I saw it in 1966, then sometime after I started reading Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels (there are 18 of these and “The Moving Target” was the first one), a magisterial series of detective novels definitive for the postwar years and all the more resonant if you grew up in Southern California as I did. I so love this series that over the course of the years, I’ve returned to it and read them all four times and mean as much to me as ever.

    I absolutely do not feel a movie owes a novel fidelity–it may only be compared as two individual works in terms of which one is better on its own merits–and “Harper,” mostly pretty faithful, has some good things on its own in the adaptation. It’s also, for the most part, beautifully cast, great choices if you’ve read it, the most offbeat and effective being Julie Harris as jazz pianist Betty Fraley though I also like Robert Wagner, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill. The character of Lew’s wife Sue never appears in the books, though she if often evoked all the way through and that’s about twenty-five years–when “The Moving Target” begins he is decisively divorced and it’s still fairly raw for him. But if one could imagine Sue, Janet Leigh is how I would imagine her to be and I liked that scene.

    But on seeing the movie again, and even if I hadn’t, the one casting note that just made the whole thing seem glib by comparison with the novel is Paul Newman in the title role. No one who loves Lew Archer and those novels would imagine him in the role and I know it’s perhaps unfair but I wish he’d never played it (for the record, “The Drowning Pool” from the second novel is a much worse movie than this one). Newman just turns the character into, well, Paul Newman. I know–what else could he do? And yet, Newman could go beyond that somewhat flippant, self-satisfied and narcissistic screen persona at times and as his career went on, he became a better actor than he had been.

    I know this is kind of a self-indulgent comment but it makes me sad that it’s probably easier to see those two movies now than to find the novels. They were celebrated in their day and should be out there as classics.

    1. Don’t worry about what kinds of comments you leave here, any thoughts and insights that a post sparks are welcome and always great to read. Obviously I can’t compare since I haven’t read any Archer books but I sure understand about being disappointed about drastic departures from sources, and putting that aside and taking films as they are. Newman’s mugging in the reactions was overdone for me but otherwise enjoyed and I’ll have to read the books someday. Loved Julie Harris in that part, and something I was thinking about after posting was that they never showed what torture Webber was doing to her, and her screams sold that whole bit.

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