Harper, made after the artistically and commercially disappointing “Lady L,” was a box-office hit, catapulting Paul Newman into mega stardom, occupying that position for about a decade.
For the first time, Newman played a private detective in the mold of Humphrey Bogart’s classic roles of the 1940s. Oddly enough, despite “Harper” enormous success and talks of a sequel or follow-up, it took Newman a whole decade to make another similar film, “The Drowning Pool,” this time around co-starring with his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward.
“Harper” was Newman’s first Warner picture since buying his contract out (for $500,000) from the studio seven years before. It also was his first picture with director Jack Smight, known for his efficient and precise helming. William Goldman, in his first solo assignment, penned the well-paced, sharply-written, but not too deep script, based on Ross MacDonald’s detective novel, “The Moving Target.”
Though the movie is a star vehicle for Newman, it benefits from the presence of half a dozen women, older and younger, such as Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, and Pamela Tiffin. The presence of Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s widow (now married to Jason Robards) brought fond memories of Bogey’s private eye pictures.
Lew Harper, Newman’s anti-hero represents the epitome of cool, hip, cynical, and wisecracking, a down-on-his-luck detective without many illusions but with plenty of realistic insights into human conduct, as he moves around in a seedy Los Angeles searching for a millionaire who’s kidnap victim.
The scenario arranged for Harper to engage in various plots and counterplots. Though estranged from his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), he’s still in love with her and would like to renew his marriage. However, she still blames his work for destroying their happiness, thus asking for a divorce.
After getting a $500,000 ransom demand, Elaine Sampson (Bacall) commissions Harper through their mutual friend, the lawyer Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) to trace her kidnapped wealthy husband. She hopes that Harper will find her missing husband dead, which he does–eventually.
Meanwhile, Sampson’s spoiled daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) is having a casual affair with Alan Traggert (Robert Wagner), the family pilot, who’s also involved with a nightclub singer, Betty Fraley (Julie Harris).
On the job, Harper meets an assortment of colorful characters, including aging actress Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters, playing a variation of herself), who had known the missing Simpson, and her husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), who is the brains behind a smuggling ring operated by a religious fanatic, Claude (Strother Martin).
Upon instructions, Harper delivers the ransom money, chases the car that picks it up, and gets wounded. Later at Fraley’s home, Harper finds her tortured by Troy, Fay, and Claude, who are after the missing ransom money. Harper shoots Troy and Betty flees in her car, but his persistent investigation eventually resolves the mystery.
Robert Webber Shelley Winters Harold Gold Strother Martin Roy Jensen Martin West Jacqueline de Wit Eugene Iglesias Richard Carlyle
Warner release of a Jerry Gershwin-Elliott Kastner Production.
Directed by Jack Smight.
Screenplay by William Goldman based on the novel The Moving Target, by Ross MacDonald. Music by Johnny Mandel.
Song “Livin’ Alone” by Dory and Andre Previn.
Photographed by Conrad Hall.
Editor, Stefan Arnsten.
Running time: 121 minutes.