Harper (1966): Paul Newman Shines in Entertaining, Star-Driven Private Eye, With Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters

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.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Harper film poster.jpg

Original cinema poster

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.

The script originally was called Archer, but the name of the lead character was changed from Lew Archer to Harper because the producers had not bought the rights to the books series, just to The Moving Target.

Goldman later wrote “we needed a different name and Harper seemed OK, the guy harps on things, it’s essentially what he does for a living.” Goldman says Newman wanted a title with the letter H as he had good luck with one-word titles starting with “H” such as The Hustler and Hud.

“It’s a Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) kind of film,” said Newman, adding the difference in the private eye character “is the level of commitment. He has more of a sense of humor about his job.”

In the title sequence, Newman dunks his head into a sink full of ice cubes to rouse himself awake. It’s a bit he repeated in the 1973 Oscar-winning film The Sting. Newman reportedly followed this routine every morning in real life.

The film was a commercial hit, earning $12 million at the box office in the U.S. alone.

It launched William Goldman’s career as a prominent screenwriter.


Paul Newman as Lew Harper
Lauren Bacall as Elaine Sampson
Julie Harris as Betty Fraley
Arthur Hill as Albert Graves
Janet Leigh as Susan Harper
Pamela Tiffin as Miranda Sampson
Robert Wagner as Allan Taggert
Robert Webber as Dwight Troy
Shelley Winters as Fay Estabrook
Harold Gould as Sheriff Spanner
Roy Jenson as Puddler
Strother Martin as Claude


Warner release of a Jerry Gershwin-Elliott Kastner Production.

Produced by Elliott Kastner, Jerry Gershwin

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.

Release date: February 23, 1966

Budget $3.5 million

Box office $12,000,000