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Watching the Detectives: Paul Newman is Harper November 15, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Thriller , 1 comment so far

One thing I need to make clear from the start - I’m a big fan of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels, for me they’re the best hardboiled detective stories written in the “golden age” for such tales – the ‘40s and ‘50s. This adaptation of the first Lew Archer novel isn’t a bad film; it just doesn’t come close to capturing the spirit of the book it’s based on.

Hired by a wealthy woman (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing husband, Harper (Paul Newman) finds that the missing spouse has been kidnapped. With even the man’s wife and daughter not eager to see him returned, Harper has a wealth of suspects but he still manages to uncover an illegal-alien smuggling ring on the side.

It’s hard to say exactly what lets Harper down. It’s got an excellent cast. Newman, in the middle of the decade that would produce some of his finest films (The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) would seem a perfect choice for Harper and yet he comes across as far too light and breezy. You get the feeling he’s enjoying himself and that doesn’t gibe with the character he’s playing. There’s a world-weariness about Harper that Newman fails to catch, or he did at the time, he was far more Harperesque in Twilight some thirty years later.

Bacall, someone who knows her way around this kind of material, is great but underused. Robert Wagner is surprisingly effective as the pretty boy pilot, as is Julie Harris as a junkie lounge singer, but Shelley Winters is a touch over the top as a has-been movie star. Best of the supporting cast though is Robert Webber as a creepily menacing villain.

There are also some impressive names behind the camera. William Goldman provides an intelligent script that errs only in the addition of Janet Leigh as Harper’s soon to be ex-wife. She’s a completely unnecessary character and the film would work much better without her, and losing a little of its excessive two hour running time would be an added bonus.

Master cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ensures that the film looks good but Johnny Mandel’s irritatingly twee score fails to be as pleasing for the ears. Every time Harper goes into a club or a bar it’s Mandel’s music that’s playing. Now I was only one at the time the film was released, but surely people weren’t dancing to this kind of thing in trendy clubs (or even untrendy ones)? If there’s one thing above all others that mars ‘60s detective movies, it’s their music, with Tony Rome and Lady in Cement equally guilty.

One has to wonder how Jack Smight, predominantly a TV director both before and after this film, got to helm such a first rate production. Regardless, he does a workmanlike, if unspectacular, job.

Harper is a film whose parts should add up to much more than they do and I can’t help feeling it would have been a better film had it been made in the ‘50s rather than the ‘60s. The film would doubtless have been a grittier affair, with more of the books dissection of the dark underbelly of well-to-do Californian society and, ideally, Burt Lancaster as Harper.

Oh, and that name change (Archer to Harper) regardless of reason (Macdonald withholding the rights to the name or Paul Newman insisting on the name being changed to something beginning with H, because he thought the letter was lucky for him after The Hustler and Hud) is mildly annoying for fans of the books, or this fan anyway.

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