The great body of work left by Paul Newman will cement his place in Hollywood history of the second half of the 20th century. He made so many terrific features and worked with so many of Hollywood’s finest directors that it’s hard — nay, impossible? — to definitively say which one is his best.
But that’s not stopping us, as we tentatively off 1966’s Harper is his best. Or, at least the one enjoyed most.
The picture for its occasional flaws has held a stubbornly fond place in our memory ever since it first came out a half century ago.
We say “stubborn” because a recent DVD viewing clearly pointed up the movie’s charms — and glaring faults. But it still is very good, and well worth a re-examination.
Newman plays the title character, a down-at-the-heels Los Angeles private eye (is there any other kind?) hired by a wealthy disabled woman to track down her missing, whacko and none too upright husband. There is a bitterly estranged, bikini-clad stepdaughter, her lounge lizard lover, snoopy domestic help and a California mansion worthy of shaming Architectural Digest. As you can immediately see this is familiar film noir territory but with a Sixties twist.
Harper drives a beat up sports car. He snaps off the film’s crisp dialogue (penned by William Goldman based a Ross Macdonald novel) with sharpness and, at times, real passion. And although his character is hardly a gym rat, he performs the action sequences with athletic verve. (Frank Sinatra was supposedly set to play the detective, but dropped out with Newman taking over.)
To Harper’s enormous credit, a superb cast brings to life a broad range supporting characters, various figures mostly of disrepute who flush out the requisite complications of any self respecting film noir plot.
Lauren Bacall plays the stone-hearted wife, Pamela Tiffin is impressive as the bikini-sporting stepdaughter, Robert Wagner has great fun as the poolside lounge lizard, Shelley Winters has a surprising turn as a movie star “who got fat.”
Especially noteworthy are Arthur Hill as a lovelorn attorney, Harper’s best friend, who is not what he seems; and Janet Leigh as Harper’s estranged wife who credibly pulls off a surprisingly heated (by tasteful implication) love scene. Julie Harris overacts as a drug-addicted nightclub singer, while most of the villains (including a sadistic Robert Webber) are broadly drawn almost to the point of parody.
One of Harper’s drawbacks is that it never quite makes up its mind if its plot is a genuinely film noir tale of pervasive treachery and evil or a sendup of the film noir form with a Los Angeles-in-the-swinging-Sixties twist. It seemingly tries to be both to its detriment.
Another is director Jack Smight, who approaches the film as if he’s directing a network tv movie, coldly and efficiently. The action scenes, for example, are staged badly despite Newman’s gymnastics. Then there are the incoherent aspects of the plot, which needlessly take up time and detract from the fine work of the stellar cast. (Harper has a running time of more than two hours, which would never have been allowed in the old studio days. It was back then 90 minutes, tops, and out the door.)
Harper is moving stylishly into solid middle age. Take another look and enjoy a first rate performance from a great actor..